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Around 1 a.m. on Oct. 18, 1992, all hell broke loose around Liam Atkins.

A federal prosecutor later described that Sunday morning’s wee hours in a statement filed in U.S. District Court. About a half-hour earlier, retired Marine Col. Patrick Collins had informed a Georgetown street cop that an escaped felon was drinking at the Guards Restaurant. Six plainclothes officers followed Collins into the crowded barroom.

According to the prosecutor’s statement, the plainclothesmen surrounded Atkins, identified themselves as police, and asked him to keep his hands on the bar. Instead, Atkins turned and swung at the closest officer; he missed, and flung his drink in the cop’s eyes. Then Atkins reached for his waistband, and three lawmen wrestled him to the floor. In his belt holster, they discovered a loaded .357 Sturm Ruger revolver. They charged him with assault on a police officer and with felonious possession of a firearm and ammunition.

Christine Dolan, a witness to the fight that night, tells a much different story. Dolan is a gravelly voiced maker of documentary films, a former criminal investigator with a law degree from Georgetown, and a former CNN political reporter. Dolan looks like a hardbitten newswoman. She smokes Marlboros, drinks white wine, and gives the impression that liquid nitrogen courses through her arteries.

When the ruckus ignited at the Guards, Dolan and a friend had just finished dinner and were walking toward the restaurant’s exit. The tussle piqued Dolan’s interest: Were it an ordinary brawl, she surmised, the bartenders would have sailed over the bar to break it up.

Three barstools blocked the narrow passageway beside the bar, presumably to corral patrons out of harm’s way. And the crowd—the Guards’ usual assemblage of lawyers and cops and suit-and-tie night owls—remained in the safe zone. But to the horror of her friend, Dolan charged past those barstools and into a dark-paneled nook directly opposite the bar. Thus, she secured for herself the only unobstructed view of the action.

Atkins, she says, lay face down, hands behind his back and jacket pulled down in such a way that it immobilized his arms. Three plainclothesmen were on the ground with him, she says, and one was standing.

She remembers: “The cop standing up said, “Does he have a weapon? Check his ankles.’ ” And then, she says, she saw one of the cops on the floor take a large gun from his own body and pass it to the standing cop.

“I’m sitting there going, “What the hell?!’ ” she says. The standing cop turned toward the crowd behind the barstools, holding the gun so that the bar patrons could see it.

The gun, Dolan says, was a plant.

Atkins goes further. He protests that he’s a political prisoner, jailed because he threatened to expose Oliver North, or George Bush, or a government conspiracy to conceal prisoners of war secretly returned from Vietnam. Or perhaps some admixture of the three.

iss Gray,” he says when he calls, “This is Liam Atkins.” He doesn’t have to identify himself: I know his baritone with its clipped, military sound, a voice that can rollick one moment and rage the next. On some days, I listen to that voice for hours at a time, as Atkins explains why he’s spent the last two years in the D.C. Jail. His exceedingly tangled tale of woe extends past the Guards, sprawling to include his paramilitary career, multiple arrests, his business dealings with North, and a thousand little details that point to a Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory.

That tale reaches its most incredible point in winter 1987. Then, Atkins claims, George Bush—in person! at the V.P.’s mansion!—asked him to secretly find out whether North planned to implicate Bush in the Iran-contra scandal. Atkins says that he carried out the vice president’s request, and later revealed the incident to a Tampa Tribune political reporter. He theorizes that his contact with the media posed a threat to both Bush and North, and believes that one or the other somehow arranged the arrest at the Guards. Atkins conjures a spy-eat-spy universe, where ground-level operatives are casually sacrificed to their superiors’ political aspirations.

To back those assertions, Atkins offers only scraps of proof, pried from government agencies through subpoenas and Freedom of Information Act requests. He can demonstrate that he was at least acquainted with North: North’s notebooks and appointment calendar from the Iran-contra days include entries bearing Atkins’ name. Atkins can also show that the U.S. government has at least monitored him: Internal documents reveal that the Defense Intelligence Agency followed his POW activities and highly disapproved of them. And he can demonstrate an almost poetic connection between his covert activities and his eventual arrest: Patrick Collins, the retired colonel who reported Atkins to the cops, also provided his first introduction to North.

Those scraps of proof raise unsettling questions, but they do not prove Atkins’ flabbergasting claims. Like all conspiracy theories, Atkins’ airtight belief system relies less on proof than on faith, and can accommodate or ignore any apparent contradiction. Per that worldview, denials by government officials reinforce the cover-up, and Atkins’ numerous arrests prove the government’s determination to silence him.

Atkins’ tale is worth considering only because Realpolitik so often strains credulity. The Iran-contra affair brimmed with mind-bending stories. For instance, Iranian go-between Manucher Ghorbanifar, a self-described “wheeler-dealer,” first proposed using profits from Iranian weapon sales to support the contras—the crux of the Iran-contra affair—while in a London bathroom with North. National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane once bestowed a chocolate-covered cake upon his Iranian hosts—not realizing that during the Muslim fast of Ramadan, the gift constituted a kind of torture. And Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams coaxed the Sultan of Brunei to contribute $10 million to the contras—but the money was never received because North’s secretary had transposed the numbers of the Swiss bank account. Against such a background, Atkins’ stupefying claims seem merely unusual.

True or not, his tale is an Oliver Stone movie waiting to be filmed. It’s a fascinating yarn, a shaggy-dog story chockablock with chase scenes, guns, booze, and politics. Besides Bush and North, the cast features H. Ross Perot, former White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray, a handful of shadowy Iran-contra figures, a sprinkling of POW conspiracy theorists, and a host of Washington barflies.

The culmination of Atkins’ misadventures was to be his trial on the Guards Restaurant gun and assault charge. He saw that trial as his chance to expose the government’s vendetta against him, an opportunity to subpoena government documents and force North and Collins to testify. For observers, the courtroom offered a chance to mull over the possibilities: Maybe Atkins is mentally unhinged; maybe he’s a liar, willing to say whatever it takes to spring himself from jail; or maybe—maybe—the U.S. government really is out to get him.

To begin at the beginning: William Roy Atkins was born in 1944, grew up in Washington’s northern suburbs, and quickly embarked upon an action-packed life. While a student at the University of Maryland, he fell under the spell of a recruiter for the Green Berets, and joined the Army in 1963. He served two tours of duty in the Vietnam War, where he fashioned a military self-image and earned a chestful of medals: His Army records list a Purple Heart, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and an impressive array of badges.

During his second tour of duty, Capt. Atkins worked for Command and Control North, a unit involved in covert activities throughout Southeast Asia. In November 1967, he fought in the Battle for Hill 875, one of the bloodiest episodes in a bloody war. Friendly fire—some of it from a misdirected bombing run—felled many American troops. In that battle, Atkins risked his life to retrieve a wounded soldier outside American lines. The incident augurs the life Atkins has pursued since: playing outside the boundaries, doing what he believes is right, not sure whether the bullets he’s dodging are being fired by friends or enemies.

In 1972, following the war, the Army reduced its Special Forces troops. Atkins’ honorable discharge meant that he’d lost the job that had once defined him. He never got over the war, and in many ways, he never stopped fighting it. “I would take all the medals I had in Vietnam and trade them for one,” Atkins testified in the late ’80s, in an Alexandria federal courtroom. “I’d trade it all for a Victory Medal. That war is still going. It hasn’t ended. It’s just in another theater.”

He returned to Maryland to search for that rare work suited to his skills. In 1977, he joined the civil war in Rhodesia, where he served in the Rhodesian flight infantry and fought to support the white government of Prime Minister Ian Smith. Because of that service, Atkins has often been called a mercenary. He dislikes the label. “That word implies that I will work for anyone for money,” he explains. “I was there not for the money, but for the cause, for the purpose of stopping communist expansion.”

In Rhodesia, he adopted “Liam” as his nom de guerre, and clung to the Gaelic moniker even after Smith yielded to black rule, and the country became Zimbabwe. Atkins’ side had lost, but for him, the guerre never ended.

In 1980, Atkins returned to the U.S. and once again searched for something to do. In Rhodesia, he’d met Robin Moore, author of The French Connection and The Green Berets. Now, Atkins offered to help Moore research another book—this one about Robert Garwood, a prisoner of war released by the North Vietnamese only a year before, long after the country had supposedly returned the last American POW.

Garwood, a Marine private, was 19 years old in 1965, when he disappeared from a military base near Da Nang. When he returned to the U.S. 14 years later, he claimed that he’d been captured at gunpoint and held as a prisoner. But the Marine Corps didn’t buy his story, and in court-martial proceedings called him a traitor. Prosecutors charged that Garwood went AWOL by simply driving a jeep off the military base, and that he eventually joined the North Vietnamese voluntarily, wearing a uniform and guarding American POWs.

Atkins had a personal interest in Garwood. In 1971, Atkins claims, the Army assigned him to assassinate Garwood, said to be stationed in a POW camp. Atkins says he accepted the mission, but was never able to carry it out. He planned to recount the incident in the book he was researching with Moore.

Officially, of course, the Army has never admitted to assigning its troops to assassinate POWs or MIAs. And what Atkins says happened next stretches even further from the generally accepted version of history.

Atkins says he sought Garwood’s military records to flesh out the book, and alleges that he stumbled upon a secret cache of POW records stored in the Department of Energy’s Forrestal Building at 1000 Independence Ave. SW. An old military buddy behind the desk allowed Atkins free access to those files; Atkins says he read not only Garwood’s records but others—and that those records showed evidence that the U.S. knew live POWs still breathed in captivity.

Suddenly, Atkins burned with purpose once more. He claims that he looked at other secret files, obtained other documents, and eventually amassed evidence of even greater government iniquity. Atkins says that according to the records he saw, two other POWs—Robert L. Greer and Frederick Schreckengost—were released by the Vietnamese, then given new identities by the U.S. government, à la the Federal Witness Protection program. Their families were told they were dead. Atkins speculates that the U.S. hoped to spare itself the embarrassment of admitting that POWs still languished in Vietnam and the Soviet Union; and that the returnees remained silent, lest they endanger the lives of soldiers still imprisoned.

He says that he passed this information to Ann Mills Griffiths, the executive director of the National League of Families of American Prisoners Missing in Southeast Asia. Griffiths numbered among the first to charge that Vietnam might still harbor live POWs, and that the U.S. should more actively pursue the issue. She and her organization have consistently blocked diplomatic relations with Vietnam; H. Bruce Franklin, author of M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America, counts Griffiths and the National League among the driving forces behind the idea that Vietnam might still hold POWs.

But according to Atkins, Griffiths abruptly dropped inquiries into Greer and Schreckengost. He says that in late 1980, she phoned him to say that her government connections had warned her to back off.

From her Washington office, Griffiths denies Atkins’ story. She dismisses the “secret-returnee program”—as it would later become known—as “B.S.! I’ve never seen so much speculation and nonsense in my life.” And she points out that Schreckengost and Greer’s families have accepted the identifications of the soldiers’ remains.

But Atkins would eventually find other believers. Over the next decade-and-a-half, the secret-returnee program would garner newsprint, TV airtime, and even testimony in congressional hearings. Atkins had spawned his first conspiracy theory.

He claims that his information landed him in a British prison.

Shortly after the alleged phone call from Griffiths, Atkins went to England to testify on behalf of his then-fiancee in a child-custody case. Late on the night of Dec. 2, 1980, London police arrested Atkins, and charged him with common assault of a motorist, plus a suite of gun charges: possession of a firearm and ammunition without the proper certificates; possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life; and use of a firearm to resist arrest. The Crown Court at Croydon found him guilty on all five counts.

What appears on paper to be a straightforward arrest becomes, in Atkins’ retelling, an international intrigue designed to stop his research on the secret returnees. He believes that the topmost levels of the American government enlisted British intelligence forces, which in turn set him up.

He says a suspicious car followed him and eventually rammed him from behind. When he got out, he says, the driver started a fight. “And so,” he explains, as if this sort of thing happens to reasonable people every day, “the fellow who assaulted me was detained by me. He found himself with a gun in his left nostril.”

He says that the English bobbies savagely beat him in their police van, and held him incommunicado for 10 days in a hospital storage room.

He says that while he lay in this storage room, three men, including an American from the State Department, interrogated him and threatened to kill him. He says that the American—a man he knows only as “Duncan”—asked him for locations of safehouses for secret returnees who abandoned the program, and demanded the meanings of the code words “gold watch,” “moondust,” and “keyhole.” Atkins knew nothing.

After his trial, Atkins was dispatched to Wormwood Scrubs Prison, but did not go gently into that good lockup. He launched a hunger strike, and was placed under observation in the prison hospital. A Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) telegram uncovered by Atkins’ subpoena shows that an American “Col. Johnson” interviewed Atkins there, and relayed his observations back to the States. According to Johnson’s report, Atkins professed the belief that some high-level U.S. official—maybe Alexander Haig—would eventually ride to his aid. Johnson detailed Atkins’ POW claims, and noted, “At one point during the session, Atkins indicated his story sounded like a poor excuse for a spy thriller (some 10 of which he had neatly stacked on his bedside table).” Johnson wrote that Atkins’ account seemed well-rehearsed, but that it nonetheless contradicted itself slightly concerning his arrest. The colonel concluded that he was “led to agree (privately) with Atkins’ comment re: a poor spy thriller.”

Al Haig pulled no strings. The hunger strike didn’t unleash a wave of international sympathy. And Duncan, whoever he was, never reappeared. After serving three years and four months, Atkins was released.

Back in the U.S. in 1984, Atkins made a videotape that believers in the secret-returnee program regard as one of the holiest relics. He says he made the tape with the help of two cohorts: a CIA agent and a retired colonel whose son was a prisoner of war. For approximately two-and-a-half hours, the retired colonel stood off-camera, asking questions; the lens focused only on Atkins, who in reply told his story. The trio cooked up a convoluted scheme: First, they’d give a copy of the tape to the CIA; then they’d demand its release through subpoenas or the Freedom of Information Act. If the CIA denied the tape’s existence, they could produce their own copies, and by implication prove that the agency was hiding other evidence of the secret returnees.

A copy of that tape eventually fell into the hands of one of the secret-returnee theory’s most ardent promoters. David Hendrix, a reporter and editor at the daily Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif., has worked since 1986 to reveal what he calls “Operation Silent Homecoming”—the secret-returnee program, only writ larger than Atkins ever dreamed. Hendrix says that a former CIA agent gave him a copy of “the Liam Atkins tape,” as it came to be called, and he credits that tape as one of his first indications that the program existed.

In 1992, Hendrix reported that the U.S. secretly relocated not just Schreckengost and Greer, but as many as 300 POWs, many of them back in the U.S. but others scattered throughout the world. He explains the government’s motivation: After reports and commissions repeatedly found no evidence of those missing in action, live POWs would embarrass government functionaries; more important, no president could risk springing only some of the prisoners, who’d bring reports of others left behind. If Americans were aware that Vietnam (or the former Soviet Union, or an Eastern-bloc country) held U.S. hostages, the media outcry could fell a president as surely as the Iranian-hostage situation destroyed Jimmy Carter. At some point in 1981, Hendrix writes, the U.S. began secretly trading aid to Vietnam for prisoners—a matter that both countries hid. In 1986, fear of another Iran-contra scandal supposedly ended the arrangement. Crucial parts of Hendrix’s reporting are impossible to duplicate or confirm; others, more easily documented, stop short of proving his case.

In October 1992, Hendrix testified before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. (The secret-returnee program was perhaps the wildest plot alleged in the 17 months that the committee convened, but it was by no means the only one.) Hendrix entered a copy of Atkins’ tape into evidence, but Atkins wasn’t available to appear before the committee; he was then in D.C. Jail on the Guards Restaurant gun charge. The committee concluded that Hendrix’s story was unfounded.

Hendrix, though, stands by it, and the story refuses to die. This fall, it surfaced on the front page of the California Zephyr, a newspaper published by the state chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. The Zephyr proclaims itself “The Air of Truth in Veteran News.” In this case, “air of conspiracy” might be more appropriate.

I recognize the nasal, Texan voice, but I hadn’t been expecting it. Ross Perot has returned my call.

The former presidential candidate occupies a hallowed place in the POW/MIA movement. In 1969, he flew an aborted mission to Vietnam to deliver Christmas presents to American prisoners. In 1970, he underwrote a wax diorama depicting two POWs sharing a cramped bamboo cage with a rat and two cockroaches; he then coaxed Congress into exhibiting the sculpture in the Capitol. In 1973, when Vietnam released all known POWs, Perot flew them and their families to Dallas, and feted them in the Cotton Bowl. He eventually sided with activists more radical than Ann Griffiths’ League of Families; widely derided as the “Rambo faction,” Perot’s new associates hatched grand plans to rescue or ransom the POWs they believed still languished in Indochina. In 1987, Perot flew to Vietnam to investigate matters for himself.

Atkins claims that Perot also flew to Washington to interview him; he says that Perot had seen his videotape—in the company of both Reagan and Bush, no less—and that Perot was anxious to investigate his claims. Atkins says that he resisted becoming involved in the issue again, but that Perot coaxed him to cooperate.

“He looked directly at me,” Atkins asserts, “and he said, “I know that you work with North. And if I didn’t believe you, what you said in this tape, I wouldn’t be here. I’ve already checked you out, Atkins. And I’ve caught other people lying about you.’ ”

Defense Intelligence Agency records subpoenaed by Atkins show that Perot did, in fact, check his credentials. Perot asked that agency for information on Atkins’ military record, his apparently false claim that he’d been employed by the CIA, and his avowal that he’d been set up in London.

Perot’s memories of his relationship with Atkins are hazier than Atkins’ and much less dramatic. Yes, he says on the phone, he remembers Atkins. “He contacted me—I’m gonna say in ’86 or ’87—with various claims, and nothing materialized. That’s just a fact.” And that’s all Perot will say.

It seems weirdly appropriate that Ross Perot and Liam Atkins’ lives intersected. Both can be described as hyperpatriotic, wary, and inclined toward conspiracy theories. But on the subject of POWs, even Perot shies away from Atkins.

At first, when Atkins returned from the English prison, he believed that his career was over, that he was a marked man in the eyes of the U.S. government. “Things were not looking good in my life,” he says. “I was condemned as a brigand. I was accused of wrongdoings. My reputation was shot. The covert community, you understand, is a very small world.”

With Fred Stevens, an old military buddy, he started Rangefinder Enterprises Inc., a Washington company that advised businesses on anti-terrorist measures. Business was often slow.

One afternoon, Atkins was drinking with his wife at the Dubliner, an Irish bar near Union Station. He says he bought a drink for a man in uniform; uniforms still tugged at his Vietnam vet’s heart. And thus, he says, he met Patrick “Paddy” Collins—the Marine colonel who would later lead police to the Guards.

Atkins says that he and Collins found that they had more in common than even most Irishmen in a bar: They avidly discussed the military and people they both knew. And then, Atkins says, Collins said he already knew of Atkins, that he’d heard of his maltreatment in England.

“So you can see that the meeting was not accidental,” concludes Atkins. “It was planned.”

For about a month, Atkins continued to meet Collins at the Dubliner. And then, in late spring or early summer ’84, Collins said he wanted to introduce Atkins to someone at the National Security Council (NSC): a man named Oliver North. It was more than two years before the Iran-contra disclosures would make North famous. “I didn’t know who he was,” says Atkins. “I didn’t know he was a colonel. He was only introduced to me as “Mr. North.’ ”

In January this year, testifying before Atkins’ trial on the Guards charges, Collins admitted that he gave Atkins North’s name and phone number. And North’s notebook and calendar entries testify that North indeed met Atkins, albeit in September 1984; they also link Atkins’ name to Collins’. But for the rest of Atkins’ claims regarding the NSC, there is only his word as proof. According to Atkins, he met North at his office in the Old Executive Office Building. North described a project for Atkins: to recruit Americans to train contra soldiers. Atkins asked North if he knew about the English felony, and North said that he did. “He said, yes indeed, he did know about the problems. That’s one of the reasons he requested I meet with him, that I did well during the time of these travails.”

“I was pretty much taken aback,” remembers Atkins. “Because of my checkered background, I thought, why would somebody at this level be remotely interested in anything I might be able to do?”

They talked for two hours, Atkins says, maybe even longer. They discussed North’s problems training the contras, and how he hoped to build a professional army in Nicaragua. Atkins says he pitched ideas off the top of his head, proposing in essence to work as a consultant for North, usingRangefinder as a cover. North accepted the proposition.

After that, Atkins says, North walked him to a State Department office to meet Bill Bode, the special assistant to the undersecretary of state for security assistance, science, and technology. North left, and Atkins then chatted for half an hour with Bode, who in turn introduced him to Nestor Pino. Atkins knew Pino by reputation: a Cuban émigré who’d fought in the Bay of Pigs and later worked as a covert American operative—in Atkins’ lingo, a “Spanish-speaking spook.”

Atkins felt flattered to associate with such high-powered players. “Why me?” he asks, pre-empting my next question. “There are other people as qualified as I am who didn’t carry as much baggage as I did.”

Atkins then suggests an answer: “At this point, we might start thinking about a disposable quantity. If something were to go wrong, they could point to my background and say, “What we’re dealing with is someone who fabricates information. Obviously he didn’t work with us. Anything he’s saying is contrived to deflect the real focus of some wrongdoing that he’s accused of.’ ”

Collins retired from the military and now lives in Ireland. This January, when Atkins came to trial in D.C.’s U.S. District Court, Collins traveled back to the U.S. to appear as a witness for the prosecution.

Collins testified during the pretrial motions, saying that he first encountered Liam Atkins in the Dubliner about 14 years ago. “I didn’t know him socially,” said the ruddy retired colonel. “I didn’t talk to him…but I was made aware of who he was.” Collins then described various complaints he’d heard about Atkins’ unpaid bills. Atkins, he said, often wore the uniform of a Special Forces major.

Questioned by Atkins’ lawyer, Collins admitted that both he and Atkins frequented the Dubliner on Fridays, and that they’d held conversations. Collins acknowledged being familiar with Atkins’ run-in with the London police.

Collins knew North as a fellow Marine. Collins says he gave North’s phone number to Atkins because he thought North might be interested in Atkins’ POW story.

Collins further admitted that he’d arranged for Atkins and his partner, Stevens, to attend a Quantico seminar on terrorism countermeasures. “The conference was nonclassified,” Collins said. “I could go out on the street and invite people.”

“Did you ever do that?” asked Atkins’ lawyer.

“No,” Collins said.

“Would you invite people to a security meeting that you did not trust?”

“I was aware of Atkins’ nefarious activities,” said Collins. “I was keeping an eye on him.”

Collins’ explanation only prompts further questions: Why, for starters, would someone invite a suspicious character to a security meeting in order to monitor him? But Collins, who disappeared quickly after his testimony, clearly was not interested in answering.

I called Fred Stevens, Atkins’ former business partner. “How much of what Atkins says is true?” I asked.

“None of it,” Stevens replied. “It’s all lies. Take my word for it. If I were you, I’d take off running.”

He refused to talk about Atkins any further. “He’s got a lot of problems,” Stevens told me. “There may be a novel in that guy, but there’s not a newspaper story.”

Atkins says he recruited potential contra trainers from American military bases, especially Fort Bragg, where Special Forces troops are headquartered. He says he appeared at the base in his reservist’s uniform—“they didn’t want coat-and-tie types down there”—and approached soldiers nearing the end of their service.

Atkins says that his recruits were classified as Rangefinder Enterprises employees. And if one of them died in Central America, the cover story would be that he’d perished in a jeep or helicopter accident at his base in the U.S.

Atkins says that most of the trainers flew to Honduras on military aircraft, “C-130s,-141s, and such.” The trainers wore uniforms and purported to be reservists, in Honduras to build roads and hospitals. Passengers aboard military aircraft didn’t pass through customs, and could smuggle as much military hardware as they liked.

Atkins claims that he traveled often to Central America, sometimes in impressive company. A 1989 brief filed by one of Atkins’ lawyers in Alexandria’s federal court recounts those trips in some detail. According to that brief, Atkins traveled twice to Honduras with North, and made a number of trips with Pino. In July or August 1985, the document says, “North and Atkins visited Central America using false Irish passports provided by North.” North’s passport allegedly bore the name “Larry Goode”; Atkins’, “Liam O’Hart.” (Goode and O’Hart: The symbolism is impossible to miss.)

Most amazing—and most impossible to prove—is Atkins’ contention that he saw Vice President Bush and his counsel, C. Boyden Gray, attend a half-dozen meetings with North from ’84 to ’86. “Bush was in the loop,” Atkins charges. “He controlled the operation. He had a daily understanding of our operations. He was briefed periodically, and his staff was briefed almost on a daily basis.”

Atkins says proudly that North asked him to speak at those meetings. North, he says, would refer questions to him, saying, “ “Atkins is just back, he can answer that better than I can.’ ”

Atkins can’t specify the dates of those meetings, but he says they’re contained in documents he’s unsuccessfully tried to subpoena. He says that he cannot produce financial documents—say, Rangefinder checks from the government—because all the company’s records were seized by a federal agency, probably the FBI. He firmly contends that those documents exist somewhere in the bowels of the government, and are kept hidden as part of the cover-up.

In other words: If he had the documents, they’d prove what he says. But that he doesn’t have the documents also proves what he says. Heads I win, tails you lose.

He applies the same reasoning to his arrests: Each one demonstrates that the U.S. government tried to stop him. In 1986, while allegedly working for North, Atkins accumulated more such dubious proof. That year, in Alexandria, he pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a military I.D. card. And that same year, a Fairfax court convicted him of driving while intoxicated, carrying a concealed weapon, and brandishing a weapon.

Atkins says that the FBI engineered those charges, pressuring him to squeal on North. He says that North knew the FBI was actively investigating the Central American operations. Atkins explains that he pleaded guilty to the criminal charges because doing otherwise would have blown his cover—and he preferred receiving a suspended sentence to jeopardizing a covert operation.

North doesn’t return my telephone calls, so only his enigmatic notes attest to what he knows about Atkins. The Walsh Commission examined thousands of pages from North’s wire-bound stenographer’s notebooks, full of detailed, cryptic records of telephone calls and meetings. Later, the nonprofit National Security Archive brought the notebooks into the public domain by invoking the Freedom of Information Act.

The notebooks mention Atkins three times. Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst for the National Security Archive and a scholar of the Iran-contra affair, decodes the items. Under the date “18 Sep,” 1984, the name “Liam Adkins” appears with four bulleted lines beneath it. One entry is completely illegible in the Xerox copies released by the Walsh Commission; others are simply hard to understand. The most evocative reads “Vinnell like tng for ESF”—which Kornbluh interprets as “Vinnell-like training for the El Salvadoran Armed Forces.” The Vinnell Corp., he explains, contracted to train police and militaries around the world, and a couple of early Iran-contra figures were involved in the company. But Salvadoran forces are not contra forces, and the entry doesn’t precisely match Atkins’ story.

The next entry under the same date appears to be North’s note to himself. “Call Bill Bode re:” it says on one line. “Liam Adkins” it says on the next. Two other names—“Gabriel Gomez del Rio” and “Carl Jenkins”—follow. Gomez has been tentatively identified as a mercenary. Jenkins has a note beside his name: “Guest wants to invite some cong. pers.” It’s unclear whether either has anything to do with Atkins.

Our hero appears only once more in the notebooks, on Nov. 30, 1986—shortly after the first media rumblings regarding the Iran-contra scandal. One line reads “0700—Adkins.” Nestled beneath are three bulleted items: “Copy of training proposal”; “Left w/Pino and Bill”; and “Noel Koch’s ofc. aware:.” Below those three, a lone bullet resides, as if awaiting a fourth item, but no text follows.

Noel Koch was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, and led the Pentagon’s counterterrorism office. Atkins claims to have met him once while working for North.

Atkins also appears twice on North’s appointment calendar. One appointment, set for 10 a.m., Sept. 18, 1984, matches the first date in the notebook; the notation reads “LIAM ATKINS MAJ A???” North’s schedule card from the same day elaborates further: “MAJ LIAM ATKINS (ARMY) RE: TERR PAT COLLINS.” Perhaps “TERR” stands for “terrorism,” the stated nemesis of Rangefinder Enterprises and a subject dear to North’s heart. “PAT COLLINS” seems to corroborate Atkins’ story about the introduction.

Another of North’s calendar notations—this one for 9 a.m., Sept. 11, 1986—reads, “LIAM ATKINS 17 OCT 44.” The date is Atkins’ birthdate, and that North’s office bothered to record it somewhat bolsters Atkins’ case. The date might have been used for one of the fake passports Atkins says North supplied him; it might somehow involve payment; it might have facilitated the background check necessary to walk into the Old Executive Office Building; or it might just mean that North wanted to wish Atkins many happy returns.

The calendar and notebook entries seem too insubstantial to prove Atkins’ claim that he worked as a contractor for North. At most, they attest that Atkins infrequently visited North—and another wisp of evidence implies that perhaps he didn’t even do that.

A scrap subpoenaed from the Walsh Commission shows that Fawn Hall, North’s secretary, was questioned by the FBI on Feb. 10, 1987. The excerpted item released to Atkins’ lawyer reads, “HALL advised ATKINS is some kind of crank phone caller. He would bother the office and never associated with anyone there.”

Kornbluh notes that covert operatives are often “persons on the periphery,” and that parts of Atkins’ story are plausible. At a minimum, Kornbluh notes, “Atkins got in to see Oliver North on two separate occasions, with two separate ideas. And clearly he exploited some type of ties to get in the door.” But the documents prove nothing more.

He conjectures that Atkins may have been only a wanna-be. “North’s door was open to what I call “mental mercenaries,’ guys who only saw themselves as mercenaries against the commies,” Kornbluh explains. “Now, Liam was a mercenary with the Rhodesian military. But I don’t see how that experience might have been of use to North….

“As the king says in The King and I, ” ‘Tis a puzzlement.’ ”

Despite his priors, Atkins says he continued “merrily along” with his work for North, training the contras and concocting a plan to do the same for the Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet Union. But in November 1986, Atkins read in his morning newspaper that North’s operation had been exposed.

Atkins might be willing to face death for his country, but the prospect of prosecution unnerved him. He hustled to North’s office, where he saw that “the FBI was running amok. They had dollies carrying boxes and files. I didn’t know what my part in it was. I didn’t know there was any alleged criminality. The whole thing was a massive set of daze and confusion.”

He says he called either Pino or Bode at the State Department—he can’t remember which—and asked what was going on. He was told that they didn’t know, either. Atkins remembers sympathizing, and cracking the old military joke about mushrooms: “We operational types are kept in the dark and fed on shit.”

A week or maybe 10 days passed. Atkins says he called Bode and Pino again, but they didn’t want to talk; they were afraid the phones might be bugged. Frustrated, Atkins paid an unsolicited visit to their office. He entered the State Department at the diplomatic entrance, near the grand display of flags. He turned left, and walked down to the far left corner, to Bode and Pino’s office. Or so he thought.

“Like the proverbial movie of these type of events, there was no office,” Atkins says. “Nestor Pino and Bill Bode were not there. In fact, the whole office complex was abandoned. There was an entirely different set of people in it….The secretaries were different. There was nobody there, and they refused to admit that Nestor Pino and Bill Bode existed.”

In a diplomatic lounge, Atkins checked a database of State Department employees. Neither Bode nor Pino appeared. “They were deleted from the computer,” he says ominously. “The tape had destructed, and we were out of business.”

He lay low, afraid he’d be called to testify against North. He grew angry. “The mission was abandoned. People were left without any protection….The people I worked with were hired to do something on behalf of the United States government and put their lives at risk. I don’t mean to make that sound heroic, but I want it understood from the start that none of us had any understanding of any wrongdoings. We didn’t know about funds. We weren’t the money people. We were the trainers.”

With North under investigation and Pino and Bode nowhere to be found, Atkins once again looked for work. He met Paddy Collins for a drink at an Irish bar in Alexandria. There, Atkins says, Collins asked him to continue his training project, this time in Afghanistan.

Basically, Atkins says he was once again recruiting trainers, now to teach the Mujaheddin to fire Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. In addition, Atkins says, the government offered him a bounty on any captured Soviet equipment—capping out, he says, at a handsome $13 million for a Havoc helicopter.

The “Muj,” as Atkins affectionately calls them, deployed the Stingers to great effect. In early 1987, Washington Post reporter David Ottaway published stories that mentioned the Stinger training program. Ottaway confirms that he knew and openly quoted Atkins in Rhodesia, but the reporter will neither confirm nor deny Atkins’ claim that he’d been Ottaway’s anonymous source for the Afghanistan stories.

During this phase of his career, Atkins continued to get arrested. In 1987, he was convicted in Arlington of impersonating a military officer, a result of wearing a uniform even after he’d officially left the Army. Later that year, federal prosecutors in Alexandria charged him with petty larceny, meaning that he’d illegally obtained a military parking sticker, and with possession of a firearm—illegal, because the London sentence had rendered him a convicted felon, and thus ineligible to carry a gun.

In court, Atkins claimed that he’d been working for the U.S. government, in particular for Oliver North. He argued that North had required him to wear a uniform and carry a military I.D.; Atkins further argued that the same government that required him to handle guns and Stingers couldn’t prosecute him for carrying a piddling .38. But he couldn’t produce a smidgen of proof to back his lofty claims, and the judge would not allow the defense.

Instead, Atkins’ lawyer argued that Atkins was still rattled from his days in Vietnam, that he still identified himself as a military officer, and thus felt a need to carry a gun and a military I.D. The prosecutor labeled Atkins a “thrill seeker,” an “action junkie,” and a “danger to society.”

Atkins was sentenced to two years in prison, plus three years’ supervised probation. He appealed the sentence, and while that appeal worked its way through the legal system, was released on bail.

During this time, Atkins rubbed elbows with White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray at Maison Blanche, the swank French restaurant where Gray often met with friends. Atkins claims that he joined Gray’s table “almost on a daily basis—now, that’s a slight exaggeration.” Gray says they had only a passing acquaintance.

Gray, a 6-foot-6 WASP, then served as Bush’s vice-presidential counsel. He was known in Washington as an eccentric who drove a methanol-powered Chevy, and also as a brilliant lawyer, unafraid to pick political fights and to push Bush’s powers to their constitutional limits.

With Gray, Atkins’ tale once again leaps from merely astonishing to the outer limits of credibility. He is fuzzy on dates, and can offer nothing in the way of physical proof. But what he says, he says with conviction.

He claims that in late 1987, Gray asked him to act as a back channel, secretly relaying to the White House information about Oliver North. North’s criminal trial was then scheduled for summer 1988, and Gray believed that if North implicated Bush, the candidate might lose the election the following November.

Atkins says he accompanied Gray to his home in Georgetown. There, on Gray’s secure phone line, Atkins claims he spoke to Bush.

“The interesting thing was that he called me “Col. Atkins.’ He said, “Col. Atkins, I understand that you’re willing to assist Boyden in speaking to Col. North. I want to personally express to you my desire to do so. I’m pleased that you’re willing to help. I just wanted you to know that it was me, and I’m asking you.’ ”

Atkins claims that he ate sandwiches at the Army-Navy Club grill with North and his lawyer, Brendan Sullivan. (Like North, Sullivan did not return telephone calls.) North, Atkins says, “was very bitter and twisted. He felt that his life was being destroyed.” But at the end of lunch, Atkins says he asked North whether he’d protect Bush, and North replied that he would.

Three more times, Atkins says, Bush asked him to meet North. He claims that on the third and fourth such occasions, Gray escorted him to the vice president’s mansion at the Naval Observatory.

And three more times, Atkins says, he met with North in Sullivan’s office. After each meeting, he brought Gray the same report: North wouldn’t betray Bush. In the end, of course, North didn’t implicate Bush. Bush won the presidency in ’88, lost it in ’92, and now lives in Houston. He didn’t respond to a faxed list of questions.

Gray continued to serve as Bush’s counsel through his presidency, then rejoined the law firm Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, where he is a partner. He returned my phone call. “I don’t know a Liam Atkins,” he said.

“He told me he used to meet you at the Maison Blanche,” I prompted.

“Oh, yes,” he suddenly remembered. “Meet me. He would float into a group of my friends that met there. I think he was a retired major in the Marine Corps.” (In point of fact, Atkins had been an Army captain, and didn’t serve long enough to retire.) “It is true that I met him. Apparently he got into some kind of trouble….”

I asked Gray about Atkins’ claims concerning Bush and North. “I never had a substantive discussion with him,” Gray replied with certainty. “And God, he never met with Bush.”

In the early fall of 1988, Atkins was arrested yet again.

Alexandria federal court files show that his activities aroused the interest of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). According to an affidavit by ATF agent Richard Pedersen, a Secret Service agent reported that he’d seen Atkins wearing a military uniform and carrying a gun at the District’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) headquarters. The Secret Service agent also said that Atkins “was attempting to solicit persons at the FOP in a phony scam to raise funds for Afghanistan freedom fighters.”

In the affidavit, Pedersen writes that he interviewed Boyden Gray “in order to determine whether he had been a victim of Mr. Atkins’ larcenies by false pretense.” Gray made Atkins sound once again as though he’d imbibed too many spy novels. The lawyer told the agent that he’d run into Atkins at the Maison Blanche on several occasions, “and that on one occasion Mr. Atkins had told Mr. Gray that he knew Oliver North, and that if he wished Mr. Atkins would act as a back contact for Mr. Gray in the White House in any contact it wished to have with North. Mr. Gray stated that he politely declined the offer of Mr. Atkins, who he believed to be a military officer, and very clearly indicated that he felt that something was not right with Mr. Atkins….”

The ATF staked out Atkins’ house in Arlington, and on Nov. 18, 1988, agents saw their quarry walk to and from his mailbox, carrying in a hip holster something that resembled a gun. Atkins dropped the mail in his house, then returned outside and climbed in his car. The ATF pursued him and pulled his car over onto an I-66 median. Atkins struggled; the agents immobilized him face-down on the median. On Atkins’ waist, where they expected a gun, they instead found instead a blackjack; but a search of his car revealed a .22 pistol. He was charged yet again with possession of a firearm, and with resisting and impeding arrest. This time, he wasn’t released on bail.

In Alexandria, he appeared before U.S. District Court Judge James Cacheris, who’d previously found Atkins guilty on gun charges, and who’d heard Atkins’ claims about North and Bush before. This time, the judge ordered that Atkins’ sanity be assessed, and for that purpose shipped him to the federal prison in Butner, N.C. The psychiatrists ruled him fit to stand trial.

Court documents show that Tom Lawry, a Veterans’ Administration psychiatrist, took issue with Butner’s evaluation of Atkins. Lawry believed that Atkins’ stint in Vietnam might have engendered a particularly complex case of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Mr. Atkins has identified with and tied his self-esteem to his military career,” wrote Lawry. “Naturally, it is difficult to address the possibility that what one holds most dear might also be the source of one’s problems.” Lawry, however, agreed with the prison psychiatrists in one aspect. Noting that he couldn’t confirm some of the experiences, awards, and medals that Atkins claimed, he wrote, “I am afraid that I must concur with the Butner report that Mr. Atkins is a questionable historian.”

Undeterred, Atkins attempted to subpoena the players in his questionable history: North, Perot, Bode, Pino, Griffiths, and others. Cacheris refused to allow this. Atkins also hoped to subpoena Lt. Col. Robert F. Gonzales of the DIA to testify regarding that agency’s investigation of Atkins’ work on the POW issue. Gonzales didn’t help Atkins’ case: The court file includes a letter in which he reports that the DIA had in fact investigated Atkins for “what we believe to be his false and misleading claims concerning POW/MIAs in Southeast Asia,” and that according to the investigation, Atkins had falsely represented himself as an Army lieutenant colonel—even going so far as to hand a DIA employee a business card with his name above that title. A photocopy of the card appears in the court file.

Atkins says that without the subpoenas he’d requested, he was unable to mount a defense. Thus, he once again pleaded guilty. This time, the court was not lenient: He was sentenced to seven years and 10 months in federal prison.

If Liam Atkins’ life really were a novel or a movie, critics would dismiss the next development as a transparent plot device, too strange to be believed. After Atkins had served a mere eight months, a paperwork fluke prompted Butner to release him. On April 27, 1990, Pat Atkins picked up her husband at the door of the North Carolina prison, and after a wine-soaked celebratory dinner, they drove back to their home in Arlington.

Two days later, federal agents raided the house, and told Pat that Liam had escaped from Butner. From a pay phone, Pat warned Liam not to come home. He consulted his lawyer, he says, and concluded he was under no obligation to turn himself in—the mistake had been the prison’s, not his. Until things cooled down, he elected to go “on holiday.”

For about a year he traveled across the U.S., visiting friends and lying low. He stayed in touch with Pat, calling her at a predesignated pay phone in case their line was tapped. “It’s called “trade craft,’ using the skills for which I was highly trained,” Atkins jokes. “In other words, I dropped a dime in a phone box.”

After a year, Pat reported that the coast was clear, and Liam Atkins returned home to begin refashioning his life. He consulted his lawyers, mingled with old government buddies, and—most important, in Atkins’ hindsight—met Ray Locker, the Washington correspondent for the Tampa Tribune. Atkins regaled Locker with his long, complicated story. Locker pitched it to his editors, who at first turned him down. The reporter worked on the piece in his spare time—and shortly before the 1988 election, his editors let him run with it.

Locker believes that his reporting calls set off alarms that Atkins was talking to the press. Atkins was arrested at the Guards on Oct. 18, 1992—a date he uses to support his theory that he was taken out of action whenever he posed a threat. Eleven days after the arrest, Dave Hendrix entered Atkins’ secret-returnee videotape as evidence before the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs; 12 days later, Locker’s series appeared in the Tribune; and 28 days later, George Bush was elected president of the United States.

Bars and arrests form the leitmotifs of Liam Atkins’ story. The two converged the night he was arrested at the Guards.

I met Pat Atkins, Liam’s wife, at the Guards one evening after work. (Because she fears repercussions at her job, I agreed not to specify her profession, and to identify her only by her married name.) A petite woman, she practically disappeared into the crowd at the Guards’ bar: urban professionals, not so young anymore. Her high-collared dress testified to her Republican upbringing. She looked like the wife of a lawyer, a doctor, or a diplomat. She did not look like the wife of a gun-toting felon.

She placed her cellular phone on the bar beside her beer, ready in case Liam called. The phone was their Christmas present to each other; because the time that Liam is allowed to make phone calls varies wildly during the day, the phone allows Pat both freedom of movement and a connection to him. But she’s painfully conscious of the expensive airtime.

After a couple of beers, Pat walked me through the Guards, describing the evening Liam was arrested. She remembered that they were celebrating Liam’s 48th birthday with a pair of out-of-town visitors, George and Lindy Stockton, from Idaho. The foursome ate dinner and returned to the bar around midnight.

Pat showed me the stool where she sat, not far from the beer taps. She said that Liam stood behind her, and was talking to their friends when the police knocked him to the floor. Directly behind us, she pointed out the niche where Christine Dolan says she stood.

After an hour and a couple of beers, Christine joined us. Pat and Christine have become close friends since the arrest. Christine recounted how she introduced herself to Pat that night, how she recommended a lawyer, and how their intense interest in Liam’s case cemented their bond. As if to demonstrate their comfort with each other, Pat smoked a Marlboro from Christine’s pack as they animatedly discussed the Court TV coverage of O.J. Simpson’s trial.

I asked Christine for the number of the friend with her the night of the arrest, so that I could check her story, and I mentioned that CNN had confirmed that she once worked there. She seemed pleased, and rushed to give me the numbers of other reporters who will vouch for her good character. And she mentioned, conspiratorially, that calling them would be a good professional move on my part. Liam Atkins, she counseled, is a dynamite story, good for my career. She said she’d grab it herself, except that doing so would taint her testimony.

She worried that her testimony may already be tainted because she’s strayed outside a witness’ usual objective remove. Besides befriending Pat, she’s written letters on Liam’s behalf. She explained, passionately, that what she saw that night radically changed her life, and that she couldn’t let the injustice pass.

Dolan isn’t alone in addressing Atkins’ case more passionately than might be expected. Locker of the Tampa Tribune wrote a fiery letter to the judge in Atkins’ current case. “William Roy “Liam’ Atkins is a political prisoner,” the letter opened. Locker enclosed copies of the Tribune stories, adding, “Given my knowledge of him and his case, Atkins is a victim of political persecution.”

I remain unconvinced. As I drink with Pat and Christine, I feel like an agnostic at a church supper, sharing sustenance and conversation but not the basic articles of faith. Pat and Christine exude the warmth of allies in a war; I am not sure whether the enemy even exists.

On the phone, Atkins urged me to snag a good seat in the courtroom on Jan. 17, the Tuesday his trial was scheduled to begin. I expected the first day to offer little of interest, hour upon stultifying hour of pretrial motions and jury selection, but Atkins promised fireworks, theatrics, the stuff of great stories. He said that reporters from network TV and national newsmagazines would be there, too—presumably attracted by the star-power of Oliver North, who was subpoenaed to testify.

Just before the trial began, Atkins left the holding cell behind the courtroom and took a seat beside his lawyers. I’d seen photos of him before, but the man before me seemed smaller and paler than the dashing character I’d expected. He wore a suit, and his hair was carefully brushed. He looked less like a covert operative than like an actuary, or maybe a life-insurance salesman.

The big media didn’t show, but Atkins delivered on his promise of fireworks: In a highly unusual last-minute move, he tried to fire his lawyers, A.J. Kramer and Sandra Roland of the federal public defender’s office. Kramer and Roland wanted to try the case as a simple matter of gun possession and resisting arrest, Atkins noted angrily; they didn’t understand the full scope of the case, and were unprepared to wage the grand battle needed to exonerate him. He charged the lawyers with incompetence, railing against their failure to subpoena George Bush and C. Boyden Gray. He also claimed that they’d pushed him—an innocent man!—to plead guilty.

The judge explained sharply to Atkins that the case was, in fact, about gun possession and resisting arrest: Even if the lawyers could prove Atkins’ claim that he’d carried messages between North and Bush, the judge noted, that wouldn’t prove him innocent of the particular charges against him. Legally speaking, the case boiled down to these questions: Did Atkins carry a gun that night? And did he fight with men he knew to be cops?

The judge refused to appoint the new attorney Atkins wanted, on the grounds that the replacement couldn’t be ready for immediate trial. After more than two years of delays, the judge noted, he was unwilling to wait any longer. He offered Atkins two choices: to keep his lawyers or to represent himself.

Pat, in the front row of the spectators’ section, trembled. Everything was going wrong.

The court broke for lunch. While waiting for the proceedings to resume, prosecutor Eric Dubelier joked with Kramer and Roland, exercising the sportsmanlike humor of opposing teams. Dubelier and Kramer have often met in court before, and will face each other later this year on a more famous case: that of Francisco Duran, the would-be assassin who allegedly fired on the White House from the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk. But now they were discussing the matter at hand; Dubelier was amused by his opponents’ travails. Kramer, a beefy, dark-haired man with a resonant voice, shook his head. “I’ve gotta admit,” he said, “this is a fun one.”

After lunch, Atkins agreed to reinstate Kramer and Roland. If the public defenders were miffed by Atkins’ slurs against them, they hid it under a layer of cool professionalism.

Pretrial motions and witnesses consumed the rest of that day and all of the next. Much of the time, I was the only spectator in the courtroom. During the court’s last recess on Wednesday, Roland discreetly handed me a note torn from a yellow legal pad. The message was from Atkins, who wanted to be sure he could reach me by telephone that night.

He closed the note brightly, with a little inside joke: “Thanks for coming….we brigands need all the support we can get!”

On Thursday morning, courthouse regulars claimed seats in the spectators’ section, hoping to catch something interesting. They aimed sympathetic client-from-hell grins toward Kramer and Roland. According to the courtroom buzz, the judge had offered Atkins a plea bargain, but even his lawyers didn’t know whether he’d accept.

Pat sat in the front row, a Kleenex in hand.

The judge proposed a surprisingly good deal. In exchange for Atkins’ admission that he was carrying a gun, the judge said he was prepared to offer five years’ probation—a lenient departure from federal sentencing guidelines, under which the maximum penalty is 10 years’ imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.

A few strings were attached, and the official sentence will not be handed down until April. The offer depends on the accuracy of Atkins’ war record and its effect upon him, the judge said; he ordered Atkins to undergo a psychological exam. If Atkins turns out not to suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome, then the judge will allow him to withdraw his plea of guilty, and to hold a new trial.

“The sentence I am prepared to impose is conditional on another factor,” the judge continued. “You understand that your pistol-packing days are over….Your war is over.”

Atkins stood before the bench, solemnly answering “yes” or “I do” as the judge asked whether he understood various aspects of the plea. The judge approached the end of the litany, asking whether Atkins waived the right not to incriminate himself.

“Oh, Christ,” whispered Pat.

The judge asked whether Atkins admitted that he did knowingly possess a Sturm Ruger .357, Speed Six, transported in interstate commerce. Atkins looked over his shoulder at Pat, and sighed dramatically. “I do,” he said at last.

That admission means that Atkins will return to federal prison to serve the approximately six years that remain on his previous sentence; his five years’ probation will begin after he is released. But Dubelier, the prosecutor, isn’t satisfied: He believes that Atkins deserves more time for this charge, and says the government may appeal the light sentence. Besides that, he warns, the government may still prosecute Atkins for evading arrest after his accidental release.

As I was leaving the courtroom, Pat hugged me. She said that Liam is innocent, that it’s terrible he had to plead guilty, that he’s getting a new lawyer and plans to reopen the Alexandria case. She said he’d call me, that getting his story out is especially important now.

Liam Atkins lost another battle, but he still refused to surrender.

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.