In the midafternoon of Oct. 9, 2003, Kirk von Ackermann, an American contract worker from the Bay Area, used a satellite phone to call a colleague from a lonely desert road between Tikrit and Kirkuk in northern Iraq. He told his colleague he had a flat tire and needed a jack.
About 45 minutes later, the colleague found von Ackermann's car, abandoned. There was no sign of von Ackermann, who had been alone when he called. No hint of struggle, not even a footprint. All that remained was his satellite phone, his laptop computer, and, on the car's backseat a briefcase holding $40,000 in $100 bills.
"It was as if he had been abducted by aliens," Ryan Manelick told The Chronicle shortly after von Ackermann disappeared. Manelick was one of von Ackermann's business associates at Ultra Services, a civilian contracting company they both worked for in Iraq, supplying the U.S. military with tents, cabins, toilets, e-mail and Internet access -- the kinds of things that support a modern occupying force.
On the morning of Dec. 14, 2003, Manelick was shot dead near Camp Anaconda, a U.S. military base about 50 miles north of Baghdad, and about 50 miles south of where von Ackermann had disappeared two months earlier.
Today, despite a long-running U.S. Army investigation, mystery surrounds Manelick's slaying -- and the disappearance of von Ackermann, a 37-year-old former U.S. Air Force officer from Moss Beach in San Mateo County.
Von Ackermann's wife and his former colleagues say they have no idea what happened to him on that October day. Ryan Manelick's father has waged a solitary search for answers in the killing of his son.
U.S. military officials looking into both cases will not comment on the progress, if any, of their investigations.
For the families of the two men, there is grief, frustration and anger. And there is also suspicion and paranoia -- and the belief that perhaps both men were eliminated because they knew too much.
On the same day Saddam Hussein was hauled out of his spider hole, Ryan Manelick was driving a 4x4 truck just south of Tikrit, near the Iraqi town of Balad, 10 miles from Camp Anaconda. A car pulled up alongside and someone inside opened up with a machine gun. Manelick died instantly, a bullet through his brain. It was two days before his 31st birthday.
Later that week he was to fly home to Pennsylvania for a Christmas break.
Manelick may have been a random victim of a vengeful Hussein supporter. Balad, a fiercely pro-Hussein town in Sunni triangle, was the source of constant rocket and mortar attacks on Camp Anaconda.
But Manelick had said something startling the night before he was killed.
"I'm in fear of my life, you know," he said to a gathering at a Baghdad restaurant, at which a Chronicle reporter was present.
"It's not Iraqis I'm worried about, either," added Manelick. "It's people from my own country."
His father, Greg Manelick, and a team of 20 investigators from the Army's Criminal Investigation Command have been trying to figure out ever since what Manelick meant.
According to Greg Manelick and other former associates, Ryan Manelick had earlier told Army investigators looking into von Ackermann's disappearance that large sums of money were being paid in kickbacks to a U.S. Army officer in Iraq in return for doling out lucrative contracts to another a business associate at Ultra Services. Von Ackermann, who as a contract manager for Ultra Services spent a lot of time at various U.S. military bases in Iraq, knew all about it, did not approve and was about to blow the whistle to U.S. Army authorities.
Ryan Manelick made that assertion to investigators, according to his father and former associates, shortly before his fateful last supper in Baghdad.
More than a year later, an angry Greg Manelick wants answers.
"My son came out here to support the U.S. Army, not with his mouth or from a bar stool, but with his back and his brains. Somebody then blew them out. I think the least they can do is find out who it was."
Like many of the other private contractor firms flocking to Iraq after the fall of the Hussein regime in April 2003, Ultra Services planned to make money by supplying U.S. and coalition bases with the creature comforts of noncombat life: cabins rather than tents or derelict buildings; toilets instead of pits in the ground; computers and e-mail, not just Army snail mail.
But working conditions for small contractors like Ultra Services was far below the standard enjoyed by the giant firm Halliburton and its Kellogg Brown & Root subsidiary.
While Halliburton employees traveled in heavily armored convoys, Ultra Services' first sortie into Iraq was in the back of a battered taxi that broke down twice on the bandit-infested highway from Jordan to Baghdad. The company's "offices" for the first couple of months were rooms in a rundown Baghdad hotel, and the only "security" was its employees' instinct for self-preservation.
Von Ackermann and Manelick, both former Air Force officers, had the credentials to take care of themselves. Manelick had been trained in Arabic and other languages at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, and said he had worked for super-secret National Security Agency. Von Ackermann was a former deputy director of intelligence for NATO operations in Kosovo, where he had been decorated for operations behind enemy lines. He also had been a manager at Siebel Systems Inc., a major business software company in San Mateo.
Their boss, John Dawkins, a U.S. businessman who set up a Baghdad branch of his Istanbul-based contracting firm, Ultra Services, obtained almost $11 million in contracts and hired scores of Iraqis to help ship goods down from neighboring Turkey.
But as contractors were quickly finding out, working in Iraq is a risky business -- 232 employees of U.S. private contractors have been killed there, according to a report released last month by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.
Since most contracts for U.S. Army bases around Baghdad were sewn up by the time Ultra Services arrived, the company looked north to Tikrit, which required regular trips through the insurgency-inflamed Sunni triangle. In July 2003, Dawkins had been shot at as he drove through the area, a laptop in his car's back seat taking a bullet intended for him.
Security, however, was one area in which Ultra Services had its own in-house expert. Von Ackermann also had served as a Department of Defense adviser on counterterrorism and espionage and had high-level security clearance. According to his wife, Megan, von Ackermann eventually quit the military because he was "tired of having to think like a terrorist all the time."
This made it all the more strange to those who knew him that he vanished on the road to Tikrit. As Ryan Manelick remarked at the time, "He would usually have shot the hell out of anybody who tried to harm him."
Megan von Ackermann remembers a loving husband, who, despite the thrill of the military work he had once done, was happiest enjoying life with his three children.
And he would never have taken unnecessary chances, she insists.
"Kirk went to Iraq because he didn't get much challenge in his computing job and felt that with his experiences in Kosovo, he had a lot to offer," she said. "Because he was so experienced in these kinds of places, I had no great worries about him. (But) I know he wasn't happy about carrying large sums of money around."
Could he, as some have suggested, have staged his own disappearance? "He would never have left the country without telling me what he was doing," Megan von Ackermann said.
She fights back tears as she ponders the unanswerable mystery of her husband's disappearance. "I don't think I can even begin to express the stress and the fear that we have experienced. It is almost more difficult to keep hoping than to just give up," she said.
Megan von Ackermann left the family's Moss Beach home soon after the news of her husband's disappearance first appeared in The Chronicle in November 2003. She did not want her present whereabouts or the names of her three children disclosed.
Ryan Manelick's children, then 7, 5 and 3 years old, were looking forward to their father's Christmas homecoming. Instead, their father came home in a coffin. The family scattered his ashes at the Manelick farm in Pennsylvania.
For Ryan's father Greg, the tragedy has an extra-bitter twist. It was through Greg Manelick's former association in Russia with Ultra Services boss Dawkins that Ryan had gotten the job in Iraq. The chief of security for ExxonMobil in Russia, Greg Manelick has been relentless in pursuit of some sort of explanation.
Aware of his son's fears and suspicions, he e-mailed his old friend, Dawkins, and another Ultra Services associate, asking both of them to "convince" him that that neither of them had any "culpability in Ryan's death." He knew his son had begun voicing suspicions that von Ackermann was about to expose dealings between Ultra Services and a U.S. Army major in charge of issuing contracts at one of the U.S. bases, and that the alleged scheme involved kickbacks on thousands of dollars being paid out of the Army's cash funds for work projects, a percentage of which was being channeled into kickbacks.
Dawkins and the Ultra Services associate have said they know nothing about the alleged kickback scheme and have nothing to do with the mysteries surrounding Ryan Manelick and Kirk von Ackermann. Soon after Manelick's death, the two men left Iraq in fear for their own lives, they said. Ultra Services' business in Iraq has virtually collapsed.
Still, they both acknowledge, the suspicions continue to plague them.
In e-mail interviews, Dawkins wrote that he has been treated like a "radioactive criminal,'' his reputation stained and his business relationship with the U.S. Army ruined.
"I have lost all the business that I worked for due to this situation," Dawkins wrote in an e-mail. "You cannot imagine the nights that I woke up with my heart racing like never before, imagining being framed and put in jail."
When first asked about von Ackermann's disappearance, in October 2003, Chris Grey, a spokesman for the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, based in Virginia, said the U.S. Army, aided by Iraqi police, was conducting an "aggressive" investigation.
Since May, the investigation into the von Ackermann disappearance, Manelick's death and the bribery allegations has been led by the Criminal Investigation Command's Major Procurement Fraud Unit.
Asked to comment on the progress of the investigation, an Army spokesman told The Chronicle: "To protect the integrity of our investigations, it would be inappropriate to discuss the cases in any detail, to include speculating at this time if they are somehow linked."
Army officials have refused to comment further on any details relating to this story -- including Dawkins' statement that he underwent a series of intensive interrogations, including Army-administered lie detector tests, all of which, Dawkins says he passed.
"I was very scared about giving false positives during the lie detector tests and it was the worst experience I have ever had in my life," he wrote in the e-mail. "But I underwent them willingly because I wanted to cooperate and most importantly, clear my name with Ryan's father Greg, who I consider one of my most beloved friends."
Last April, Greg Manelick decided to go to Iraq make his own inquiries, but the growing insurgency made it too dangerous for him to enter the country. Now, despite the fact that there are 20 army investigators on the case, he believes that after the Abu Ghraib and other abuse scandals -- and the struggle the U.S. military has in maintaining basic order in the country -- the Army's high command has little interest in uncovering a possible corruption scandal. Better, he suspects, to quietly stamp the case "unsolvable in the present circumstances."
What of Ryan Manelick's suspicions, voiced before he died, that someone connected with Ultra Services killed von Ackermann before he could blow the whistle? Former friends and associates in Iraq are skeptical. They believe the fear engendered by von Ackermann's disappearance might have been led Manelick to wild conclusions. Besides, they say, killing a whistle-blower would only have brought more attention to people connected with Ultra Services.
There were also questions about how clean Manelick's hands were: In an e-mail, Dawkins at one point accused Manelick, and another American associate, along with some of Ultra Services' Iraqi employees, of trying to skim money from the firm's accounts.
"Neither of those guys (Manelick and the other American associate) had not been around money or had power and it corrupted them," Dawkins wrote in the e-mail. He also suggested that when von Ackermann decided to put a stop to the money-skimming, Iraqis -- either inside or outside the company -- arranged his disappearance.
Greg Manelick also wonders whether Iraqis may have been involved in some way.
"Working in Iraq is a bit like working in Russia -- you have to be very careful about the locals who you deal with," he said. "But that is just a theory based on the environment the company was working in."
Even then, the environment was -- and still is -- one of violence and chaos. And for many civilian contractors, in the absence of a functioning banking system, transactions often involve enormous sums of cash. The $40,000 in von Ackermann's possession at the time of his disappearance was to have been used to pay Ultra Services' various Iraqi subcontractors in northern Iraq.
"(Ultra Services was) earning millions of dollars in cash, and you have to assume that somebody, somewhere, saw what was going on and decided they wanted in on it," said a former Ultra Services associate, who asked that his name not be used. "It's very difficult to say exactly what happened, but the fact is that people are always prepared to kill for that kind of money, especially in Iraq."
But if money was the motive for Ryan Manelick's death, was it also connected to Kirk von Ackermann's disappearance? If so, how to account for the $40,000 left in von Ackermann's car?
In a statement to The Chronicle last week, Chris Grey, the U.S. Army spokesman, said, "We are continuing our very complex investigation."
Grey added: "I trust you will include in your article the difficulties of conducting a criminal investigation in an austere and deadly environment." He said the Army's investigation should not be compared with "one associated with a typical American city."
Friends of von Ackermann are skeptical that investigators will find the answers, and Greg Manelick wonders what to do next. Based in eastern Russia, he is thousands of miles away from where his son died, and even farther from the United States. Publicly pushing the matter too hard, he fears, could backfire with Army investigators.
"I know they are in the middle of a combat zone -- I've been there and done it myself," he said. "But that shouldn't prevent them putting in the maximum effort on the death of somebody in their own backyard who was trying to make their own lives more bearable."
Megan von Ackermann has similar thoughts. "It's only now that the investigation is being conducted with much urgency. When Kirk first vanished, the Army should have treated his disappearance like it was one of their own going missing."
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