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Sunday, August 19, 2001

Ira's tour de France

How Ira Einhorn hijacked the French conscience.

By Russ Baker

Ira Einhorn, in solitary confinement at Pennsylvania's maximum-security Graterford Prison, is a long way from his gorgeous home in the sunflowered French countryside - where, a scant few weeks ago, he was gaily entertaining visitors and arguing the fine points of the French legal system with his customary charm and confidence.

Now that his fate is back in the hands of American justice, Einhorn's idyll-in-exile seems stranger than ever. How did a convicted murderer manage to stay on the lam in public view for so long? Why did the French drag their feet so, showing little interest in helping to apprehend and extradite a man found guilty of killing a former lover and living for nearly two years with her decaying body stashed in a trunk in his apartment?

The quick answer is that the French saw in Einhorn not just a fugitive from justice but a symbol of much that they find deeply troubling about the United States and its institutions. More than anything, the safe haven accorded Einhorn by France for four long years confirms something that many Americans have suspected, and that those who have traveled there know for certain: The French really are different. Playing to that difference with all his formidable skills of ingratiation and self-promotion, Einhorn brought new meaning to the phrase "get away with murder."

Sunday, July 15, Champagne-Mouton, France

Two years back, the last time I visited Chez Einhorn in France's obscure, rural Charente region, it took some effort to find the spread where Einhorn and his Swedish wife were living on the final leg of his 20-year run from American justice. Not because the onetime activist-intellectual wunderkind was in hiding - he no longer was - but because the French themselves seemed engaged in a quiet conspiracy to protect his privacy. When he surfaced in France in 1997, the French authorities seemed to take his presence in stride. Except for an initial imprisonment when he was first discovered, another short stint later on, and twice-weekly visits to the local gendarmerie (where he affirmed that he was still in residence), he was essentially permitted to do his own thing, living like a gentleman farmer of indeterminate but highly adequate means.

But that was the late '90s. As I arrive in Einhorn's village on this sunny Sunday, it's obvious that everything has changed. Two days earlier, France had removed the last obstacle to his extradition, although it immediately delayed the action in response to an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights - which asked for a week to review the case. Now, a roadblock detours traffic from the paved road leading to the Einhorn place, a former mill house known locally as Moulin de Guitry.

To get closer, you have to pass through a checkpoint where your identity papers are scrutinized. In plain view outside the two-story stone structure with the wine cellar, gardens and streams is an assortment of police vehicles, including a crowd-control bus and a mix-and-match collection of law-enforcement officers in uniform and plainclothes - national police, customs police, gendarmes, intelligence officers. The gate to the house is closed, and there's no sign of activity inside, so I head back to the gray, time-frozen center of Champagne-Mouton, a quiet village of 1,000 nestled in rolling country a couple of hours north of the wine capital of Bordeaux.

The drab dining room of my one-star hotel is jammed with beefy guys eating no-star meals. It soon becomes apparent that these fellows are members of France's national SWAT teams and that they all are here as part of a police presence that has been growing for a year because of Ira Einhorn. They don't really know much about him, his case, what he has done - or even their exact role in all of this, unless it is to "prevent trouble" in the event that Einhorn should try to flee during what looks like his final days in France. "The three most guarded people in France today," one says, "are the president, the prime minister, and Ira Einhorn."

When I ask Dominique Tricaud, one of Einhorn's lawyers, about the large police presence, he gets indignant. "I asked for it! They're here to protect Ira." He says he requested the protection after American newspapers published material that he felt incited violence against his client. The police not only watch the place, they accompany the celebrity-fugitive whenever he ventures outside for walks. What they do not do, ever, is enter the house uninvited because, under French law, Einhorn is not considered a criminal. Indeed, to a number of vocal French citizens, he is something of a hero.

Wednesday, July 18, daytime

Standing by the roadside near Einhorn's house are three men and a woman, members of Ira's support group. The woman, with long, dirty-blond hair and neon-yellow lace-up boots, doesn't want to give her name but says she is 33, from the nearby city of Angoulême, and unemployed. Her group, which she describes as part of the "extreme left," works to help people in France without papers - both those seeking asylum to avoid persecution and those here for economic reasons. It might seem remarkable that an unemployed person chooses to spend her time making it easier for undocumented workers to come to her country in search of work, but that's France: a place where the ideological often takes precedence over the personal. She supports Einhorn for political purposes; he fits in with her mission statement. "We think the possibility that he is innocent is important," she says. For the sake of argument, I present her with the Einhorn Evidentiary Laundry List, to which she responds: "Well, anyway, I'm against the death penalty."

Einhorn's hijacking of the French conscience began almost the moment he was arrested in 1997. He had been living in France under a false name with his wife, Annika Flodin, who had met him on the run, when Annika committed a major faux pas: seeking a copy of her Swedish driver's license, which set Interpol's computers shrieking and French gendarmes scurrying to the Moulin de Guitry to arrest a man listed in the local phone book as Eugene Mallon. The moment he was hustled off to jail, Einhorn, relying on his instincts from years as an activist and relentless networker in the States, put Annika to work on an audacious gambit: to build a case for letting him remain in France forever, free from the clutches of American justice. (After six months in Gradignan Prison near Bordeaux, he was released by judges who threw the boule back into the American court, saying he should not be handed over to the United States unless and until France could be assured that Einhorn's treatment would accord with French standards of justice.)

Einhorn's lawyers, well-connected on the political left, quickly devised a credible anti-extradition strategy. Instead of talking up his innocence, which would have been difficult in light of all the evidence against him, they spun his extradition as a political matter, a battle over conflicting national values. In l'affaire Einhorn, some French politicians, journalists and activists saw an opportunity to take a stand against American policies that, in their eyes, make the world a meaner, less wholesome, more dangerous place. One man, whether guilty or not, could become the focal point of protests against capital punishment (they all knew about Mumia Abu-Jamal), American hostility to global-warming accords, and a whole array of human-rights abuses triggered by globalization and the growing dominance of large organizations and institutions.

Tactically, the wedge issues were Pennsylvania's death penalty (which was not in effect when Einhorn lived with Holly Maddux and therefore cannot apply to him) and the fact that the state permits trials in absentia. The former is banned in France, the latter permitted with the understanding that should a missing defendant resurface, he would automatically get a new trial. In 1998, when the Pennsylvania legislature passed legislation guaranteeing that Einhorn would receive a new in-person trial if he requested one and promising that he would not, in any case, be subject to the death penalty, the Einhorn forces in France dismissed these promises as worthless, arguing that no legislative body could preempt the power of the judiciary in such a manner.

Among those who came to Einhorn's defense were three cabinet ministers, who signed a petition against his extradition; Jerome Lambert, a representative of the local area in the French parliament and grand-nephew of the late President François Mitterrand; and Jean-Michel Boucheron, the former mayor of the nearby city of Angoulême, a prison-reform advocate who met Einhorn while serving time himself for financial crimes committed in office. Leaders of the powerful Human Rights League, the Droits de l'Homme, got involved, as did figures in the labor, environmental and other movements, including José Bové, an internationally recognized farmers' rights advocate who protested U.S. trade retaliation by helping "dismantle" a rural McDonald's.

One of Einhorn's most enthusiastic advocates was Simone Fayaud, the area secretary for the French Communist Party and a member of the regional parliament, who joined Annika in leading a support committee. "I studied this case for a very long time," she explained to me over the phone as her grandchildren cried in the background. "I'm the one who wrote up the petition against the extradition, and wrote it to the prime minister myself. Of course his lawyers agreed with me, as did the Human Rights League. I looked into the people in the judicial system in America handling the Einhorn case. ... I looked into the Einhorn law created for him in Pennsylvania. Everything is so unclear; we're not sure of anything."

Besides her doubts that Einhorn is getting a fair shake, she has grave doubts about the American justice system overall. She cites Amnesty International reports on the legal system and prisons. "They make lots of legal mistakes - more than 30 percent," the 53-year-old nurse says. "There are very incompetent judges and lawyers. In American prisons, the way they treat people is very inhumane."

Fayaud cites documentaries she has seen on French TV about harsh American prisons. She says that Norway refuses to extradite people to the United States at all (which is not true). Fayaud, who has never visited the United States, feels a lot of ambivalence toward the country. She imagines it a beautiful place full of interesting people, but she is alarmed by the role of violence in media, film and life in general. "You have to abolish the death penalty and the real causes of violence that push people to murder. What really is frightening to me is that judges can be elected who promise the death penalty. [Philadelphia District Attorney] Lynne Abraham is very proud she handled 200 death-penalty cases. When I read the interview with her, I could not believe that she was so proud and so happy."

Fayaud's research apparently didn't include the actual circumstances surrounding Holly Maddux's death. "I don't want to take any position on his innocence or guilt; it's not at that level I'm involved," she says. "I don't know the facts of the Einhorn case." But then she proceeds to talk about it.

"I've known Mr. Einhorn and his wife for three years now," she says. "They're intellectuals - cultivated, intelligent people. It doesn't correspond with this barbarous crime, and it doesn't make sense a body stayed a year in the apartment of a man that intelligent. I don't believe he did such a thing."

She also says she has heard that prosecutors twice asked him to plead guilty in return for a 10-year sentence and that he had refused, which, if true, pointed surely to his innocence.

I ask her what exactly Einhorn has explained about the events surrounding Holly's disappearance and the discovery of her body.

"I don't want to hear the versions," she says, reverting to her earlier emphasis. "I'm just interested in the extradition because of the human-rights issues. It's horrible what happened, and the person who is responsible for the crime should be judged. That's it. I'm not saying Einhorn is the murderer, and I have no way of knowing. ... I'm just interested in his rights." As for the Madduxes, "I understand their distress and their desperation to find the murderer."

Then she says something that sounded like a summation: "I don't think a country that uses the death penalty is more worthy than a man who kills when he is angry or passionate."

Needless to say, as his French defense ramped up, Einhorn was thrilled by the sense that he was commanding a movement again. It felt like the old days in Philadelphia, when impassioned discussions of the Vietnam War and the environment and civil rights were daily fare at cafes where adoring acolytes hung on his every opinion. When I interviewed him two years ago for Esquire, he offered me an assessment of a harmful American role on the global scene, including, he believed, an effort to suppress information about UFOs and other paranormal activity. And he and Annika described for me their involvement in French domestic causes, including battling a French government plan to open a nuclear-waste dump near Champagne-Mouton. It all made him feel grandiose.

Wednesday, July 18, night

It's the eve of a ruling on the U.S. extradition request by the European Court of Human Rights, and Einhorn knows he could be sent away as early as tomorrow, but he goes ahead and throws a 50th-birthday party for Annika, which he ruefully describes as a sort of bon voyage, although he claims that he and his lawyers are prepared to put into play new strategies to derail the extradition.

A short, round elderly man with a massive shaven head and a pink shirt arrives carrying flowers and kisses Annika's cheeks. For 30 years, until recently, Jack Jouaron served as mayor of Champagne-Mouton. Although the mayor announces loudly that he's not there to comment for the press, he and Annika and Einhorn stand in the courtyard for a while in a light rain, facing the street and the cameras, a seeming photo op not to be avoided.

Einhorn, obviously in a good mood, expounds on all the media coverage he has been getting. "Right now, I feel like I should have a camera on my head," he tells a scraggly young communist partisan, mimicking the apparatus on his forehead.

Einhorn doesn't, however, acknowledge my presence, though earlier in the week he made clear during a brief telephone conversation that he remembered me well from the lengthy Esquire profile, and that he was not pleased with the encyclopedic account of a week spent with him and Annika. "Don't delude yourself," he tells me, with a short, unfriendly laugh. "I would never give you another interview. Not after that article."

Besides, he says, he is booked "solid" with other media; no matter that I am writing for a hometown audience, as central as any to his fate. I try him again later. As I begin speaking, he cuts me off.

"By-eee," he says, elongating the vowels like a contemptuous teen, and hangs up.

Einhorn likes to boast about locals who stop by for coffee or hug him during chance public encounters, but at least some foreign nationals in the neighborhood harbor doubts about him. A retired Dutch couple in the area, Maria and Hans Das, knew Einhorn socially before his real identity was discovered, by which time they had already had a falling-out. According to the Dases, Einhorn became very unpleasant in bridge games, and even cheated.

"He was not a pleasant person when you did not agree with him," Maria Das says. And an English couple who had bought a farm in the area had also shared with me their outrage at his continued liberty: "If this was England, we'd have strung him up," the man says.

Most locals have no opinion, one way or another. The French national press has contributed to the general obliviousness, covering the Einhorn saga only sporadically and focusing primarily on his lawyers' technical tinkering. Mayor Jouaron's recent replacement, Gerard Desouhant, a small man with a graying beard clad in a maroon V-neck sweater, explains this to me when I visit him in his tiny, plain office.

"People are indifferent," says Desouhant, a math teacher at the local junior high school, who has met Einhorn in the streets but never really talked with him. "We just know he's accused of murder, but we're not doing research."

I ask if they're interested in his innocence or guilt.

"No. Why? Why? It's not a subject that concerns people. He came here, but he could have gone elsewhere."

If the Moutonites are surprisingly accepting of a convicted killer in their midst, there are things that can provoke their ire: One day, at the outdoor farmers' market, I made the mistake of squeezing a peach. I was immediately reprimanded by a farmer, and the crowd stared at me in disbelief, muttering disapprovingly among themselves.

A retired couple, Jean Peturaud and his wife, sum up the level of awareness when I visit them for a chat at their kitchen table. "I know that he's accused of killing his girlfriend," Peturaud declares, "but that he says when he arrived, he found her dead."

Where had he gotten this incorrect information? "All we know is what we hear on television and the Sud Ouest articles."

Hubert Barat is one of two reporters who have covered Einhorn for Sud Ouest, the largest regional newspaper. I drive a couple of hours south of Champagne-Mouton to Bordeaux and meet him in a cafe in the historic center. He tries to explain the French position on Einhorn, but probably the most interesting thing is his critique of his own Sud Ouest colleague, who, he thinks has perhaps gone a bit overboard in his enthusiasm for Einhorn's cause.

In fact, he says, the man, Patrick Guilloton, is a member of Einhorn's support group. Guilloton was present last Thursday, along with Einhorn, Annika and one of Einhorn's lawyers awaiting word of the French administrative decision on Einhorn's fate; he was outside the room when Einhorn, reacting to the initial bad news, cut his throat with a dull bread knife, inflicting a modest but dramatic injury.

After telling me about Guilloton, Barat agrees to set up a rendezvous with him, and several hours later I'm dining with Einhorn's favorite journalist at a Vietnamese restaurant. I'm mostly interested in understanding how Einhorn got so many serious French people to help him out, but the scribe, fiftysomething, with curly gray hair on a balding pate and a missing fingertip, is mainly interested in critiquing the U.S. legal and political systems.

When I question Guilloton, who is wearing a black polo shirt with the words "New Man" on it, about the specifics, the details of Einhorn's conviction, the overwhelming evidence, he says he isn't that familiar with it. "I don't know," he says. "I don't take sides." One thing that has impressed him and many French people about Einhorn is his voracious reading, the constant references to literature, historical events, scientific concepts. Concludes Guilloton: "I think this guy is a superior intelligence."

If Einhorn is representative of an evolved American, then his case presents the opportunity to chastise uncivilized, fanatical, wolfish Americans. A number of people invoke boilerplate examples of despicable behavior, mostly hyperbole from Philadelphia columnists and editorialists, such as encouraging folks to throw tomatoes at photos of Einhorn. Fayaud had told me she was appalled by American blood lust and what looked to her like a kind of hysteria, conduct unbecoming. Now Guilloton tells me he is appalled by the tenor of American coverage and by what he sees as rude, aggressive questions by people who have taken the prosecutors' side. "I've been a reporter for 30 years, and I've never seen anything like it."

Guilloton's journalism relies more on intuition and personal experience: "I have known [Ira's] wife for a long time, and she's still alive."

Even my interpreter got in the act, urging me to bring a bottle of wine for Annika's birthday and suggesting I tell the Ira-Annika love story.

Back at the hotel, a vast lumberjack of a man with a massive belly and bushy beard is slurping soup and staring me down. He demands to know if I am an American journalist.

"You're wasting your time," he says, scowling at me. As to the crime itself, the man, who suggests he, too, is a federal agent here for l'affaire Einhorn, puts it this way: "Who cares?" Even if Einhorn is a murderer, the man says, he is entitled to some slack. France, he says, is very serious about statutes of limitations and asserts - incorrectly - that if someone is convicted of a crime escapes and remains at large for 10 years, he's off the hook.

The French distaste for long-term prosecution (perhaps symbolized by the merciless Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables) was evident in public debate over the recent prosecution and conviction of elderly men such as Maurice Papon and Paul Touvier for collaboration in Nazi crimes of half a century ago. The French also have a different attitude toward so-called crimes of passion, which generally bring comparatively short prison terms.

A French TV reporter explains to me about a little-known accommodation with Italy whereby France acts as a dumping ground for Italian terrorists who, like Einhorn, were convicted in absentia but promise not to launch violent political actions from French soil. (The same does not apply to Basque terrorists, who actively operate from France, and are routinely handed over to Spanish authorities.) There's also a perception of tit for tat.

Parliamentary delegate Lambert points out that the United States just accorded political asylum to a French citizen, Karim Christian Kamal, "because they believed the French judicial system was not good for him." Not a persuasive parallel, I note, since the Frenchman hadn't clearly committed a major crime; he had fled after accusing some powerful French judges of pedophile activity. And besides, it was one Los Angeles judge who approved asylum, over the objections of the federal government. Lambert moves right on to his next point: "Any person on French territory has rights, and those rights have to be respected, and the judicial system must work properly."

On some level, the Einhorn business takes on religious overtones: French Catholic redemption and post-confessional forgiveness versus a resolute American Protestant, even Puritan, ethic that insists when a man has committed a murder, he must accept the consequences of his actions - end of story.

Thursday, July 19

It's D-Day. Everyone is awaiting the verdict from the European Court. The press cadre has swelled (Einhorn has posted a notice of a 3 p.m. conference de presse), along with the police presence, and friends and backers of Einhorn's keep arriving. A man wearing red sneakers and a "Greens" button looks around. "The communists here today aren't at Genoa for the G-8 summit," he observes, impressed that this event takes precedence over the huge anti-globalism demonstrations.

"I think many French journalists were seduced by him," a young local reporter says. "He's almost like a guru - very charismatic. And his wife, who's always smiling."

Now Einhorn's lawyers are spinning a novel line. Even if the European court decides to allow extradition, they're asking the French government not to relinquish him until French authorities have a chance to prosecute him themselves: He violated French law by entering the country illegally, using a false identity.

Then, as quickly as it began with the initial mill house raid in 1997, the French chapter of the Einhorn affair ends. As reporters stand around, chatting into cell phones and eagerly awaiting a pizza delivery from the hotel, four blue sedans full of gendarmes roll up. Almost before anyone notices, they are out, and up, single-file, to the big blue door. One knocks sharply. A window directly above opens, and Annika looks out over a flowerpot. "May I have a few moments with my husband?" she asks. The lead gendarme consents. After a couple of minutes, the door swings open, and the queue enters.

Nineteen minutes after they arrived, they hustle Einhorn a short distance out of the house to a waiting car, crisply bend his frame down and in, and pile after. The doors slam shut, and Annika presses her palms against the window, peering at Einhorn with great sadness. Then, in a second, they are gone.

Young communists hustle Annika back to the house, shoving reporters aside. Another frantic round of cell-phone calls; camera crews dash off to make their satellite feeds. "Whew!" one reporter says. "That was awfully dramatic. I won't forget that soon."

Einhorn's Paris-based lawyer, Dominique Tricaud, speaks to reporters with tears in his eyes. "This could have been a big symbolic win for human rights," he says wistfully. "My government made a very big mistake, and I apologize for that. In a best-case scenario, Ira will spend the rest of his life in prison. I find that very, very sad."

In the end, the European Court of Human Rights hadn't seen fit to do more than throw some technical questions back at the French. Apparently Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, a Socialist whose interest in Einhorn and his case never seemed to extend beyond satisfying certain elements of his political coalition, had larger matters to attend to, U.S. pressure was growing, and the charismatic fugitive from American justice was becoming just too much of a noisy distraction.

In a bizarre coincidence, another American of similar age and background was extradited by France during the same month, for nearly the same crime, after also remaining publicly in France for four years. James Dewayne Nivette, 58, a former psychologist in Sacramento, Calif., fled to France after allegedly shooting his 25-year-old former girlfriend 13 times in a jealous rage. Nivette, also found hiding in a small town, employed similar arguments and strategies as Einhorn, and California had to agree, like Pennsylvania, not to apply the death penalty.

The biggest difference is that Nivette's case drew practically no press coverage and engendered no support movement in France.

Friday, July 20, Paris

The next day, villagers enter the local tabac, exchange greetings, make their purchases of newspapers and lotto tickets, and leave, walking past the display copy of a headline about Einhorn's departure. The story was also on the national news the evening before, but few seem to have noticed. "He's gone?" asks Raymond Alary, a retired locksmith, with mild surprise. "Oh - that's fine." Does Alary consider him a criminal? "Who knows? I'm a simple citizen."

By afternoon, Einhorn is in Philadelphia and I'm in Paris, where my interpreter reminds me of something Patrick Guilloton, Einhorn's friend on the paper Sud Ouest, had said the night we dined together, during a moment when I was absent from the table. "I hate Americans," he'd told her. "I really hate their guts."

Yet Guilloton, manifesting the eternal love-hate relationship with America (the French were the ones who gave us the Statue of Liberty), had graciously provided me with sources and contacts, and, a couple of days later, in front of Einhorn's house, had greeted me warmly. And at Einhorn's news conference the other day, one of his supporters, a black member of the European Parliament who talked about injustice in America, also wanted it known that "this is not an anti-American crusade. ... I was in New York and I had one of my best times ever."

Meanwhile, in Paris, French sports fans cheer the American Lance Armstrong as he dominates the grueling three-week Tour de France bicycle marathon in yet another victory over their beloved compatriots. In truth, French attitudes toward America have less to do with personal and policy differences than with fears about the tendency of the world's hegemonic superpower to dominate and even obliterate older and (in their view) superior cultures.

As I sit in a cafe pounding out this article on my laptop, I find myself in a slice of la vie Parisienne, 21st-century style. On my left, an elegant elderly man with stylish round glasses eats a croissant and reads the intellectual paper Le Monde, a thick book about the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault in front of him. On my right, a younger man reads the left-leaning newspaper Liberation; beside his coffee cup rests a bouquet of pale orange roses. Over the lovely rooftops, from a church nearby, float the sweet tones of a choir.

But such postcard moments, as seductive as they are, can also be deceiving. An American businessman living in Paris reminds me of the case of Jacques Mesrine, a serial robber of two decades back whose brazen exploits (including a prison escape) and talent for self-publicity turned him into a popular folk hero. That all ended, though, when the French police caught up to him in traffic and settled things with machine guns.

Said the businessman, with a chuckle: "That's how the French deal with these things." •

Russ Baker is a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and has reported from around the world for newspapers and magazines. Direct e-mail to   

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