The federal prosecutor lived in a desert tent city to question a terrorist group.
Editor's note: President Trump has nominated David M. DeVillers, an Assistant U.S. Attorney based in Columbus, to become the new U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio. DeVillers is known for his work fighting gangs and organized crime, including the multi-year prosecution of the Short North Posse, but this Columbus Monthly article from February 2005 describes another highlight of the career of a man gang members called "Devil Man:" his months spent in Iraq, gathering information from terrorists.
It wasn't exactly what Julia DeVillers wanted to hear when her husband came home from work one evening and asked, "What do you think about me going overseas?" "I said, 'Great:" says Julia. " 'Where? Monaco? South of France?' " She was being facetious, putting a happy face to a situation she'd dreaded; she knew exactly what he meant. Dave DeVillers was headed for Iraq.
Julia had thought it likely this day was coming. They'd met when both were undergrads at SUNY-Oswego in upstate New York; "We tended bar together," she says. "We were talking one time, talking about goals and where we were going, and he told me his goal. He wanted to try war criminals."
The impact of international terrorism became more personal for the couple in 1988 when Pan Am Flight 103 from London to New York exploded in flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 passengers--including 35 students from nearby Syracuse University and seven students from SUNY-Oswego, including one of Julia's former roommates.
Dave DeVillers's goal came sharply into focus, however, on Sept. 11,2001. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 affected him deeply. He wanted to help. "As soon as I saw the attack, I knew," he says. "My brother, my father, my grandfather were all in the military. I was not. I'm not much of a guns guy. But I still very much wanted to serve my country."
Dave DeVillers is no John Wayne--at least not outwardly. He's more Jon Stewart--a mix of boyish sass and metropolitan style, buttoned-down yet outgoing, New York attitude with Midwest warmth. Yet even though DeVillers doesn't wear "tough guy" on his sleeve, it's there.
As a prosecutor for more than a decade, he's crossed paths with enough thugs to prove he's not easily intimidated. As a Capital University Law School student, DeVillers interned with Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, and was hired full time after graduating and passing the bar. DeVillers quickly asserted himself as one of the office's brightest stars and was soon named to head up the gang unit. He was so successful at putting away the city's most violent gang members that he became known as "Devil Man" on the streets. The words began appearing in graffiti on buildings in the urban neighborhoods.
The job wasn't without its dangers. During the 1999 and 2000 prosecutions of one of Columbus's most notorious gangs, the X-Clan, DeVillers received a number of threats, including a death threat. He was followed one night after leaving the courthouse. DeVillers tried to elude his pursuers, an effort that ultimately evolved into a high-speed chase around 1-270 and onto Rt. 161. The Buick carrying three men finally peeled off when De Villers pulled into a police substation near Westerville.Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our weekly newsletter
For nearly a year, the De Villers family was given police protection. An undercover SWAT officer lay on the floor of his car's back seat while it was parked in the courthouse parking garage during the trial. A number of other officers stayed with Julia at their home around the clock. At one point, following the conviction of Ronald Dawson, the gang's leader, the entire DeVillers family was flown out of state for protection.
"It's sometimes stressful," says Julia. "But I always try to remind myself that Dave's in a position to really make a difference."
It was the desire to make a difference that led DeVillers into O'Brien's office in November 2001. The cloud of dust from the rubble of the Twin Towers had started to clear over New York City, but the fear and uncertainty still hung over the country. He approached O'Brien. "I said, 'This is something I want to get involved in.' " President Bush had declared war on terrorism, and in that war, the Department of Justice would serve a leading role. "They said they were going to take people from the local US. Attorneys' offices around the country to help," says DeVillers. "For me to serve, the best way was to become an AUSA [assistant US. Attorney]."
After he went through a few months of interviewing, screening and background checks, a job opened for DeVillers in his own backyard. The US. Attorney's office for the Southern District of Ohio needed an AUSA in its Columbus office. "He was an aggressive trial prosecutor with a 10-year track record with the county successfully trying hard-hitting cases involving guns, drugs, gangs," says Greg Lockhart, the US. Attorney in charge of Ohio's Southern District, which includes offices in Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus. "That's what we look for."
In June of 2002, DeVillers was hired by Lockhart--just as talks between Iraq and the United Nations were breaking down over allowing weapons inspectors into Baghdad. Nine months later, the United States launched the first series of air strikes on Baghdad, and the Department of Justice responded with a national call for volunteers. De Villers answered, and in the fall of 2003, he made his first bid for a role in the Middle East, applying for a nine-month assignment in Afghanistan to help write that country's new penal code. He wasn't chosen. A few months later, however, in the spring of 2004, another assignment came open, and this time, DeVillers was selected. It was just a three-month gig, one of the shortest--which Julia definitely preferred. But it was in Iraq.
His assignment would carry him to the remote reaches of Iraq, from his family and home in suburban Central Ohio to a tent city in the middle of the desert about 60 miles north of Baghdad. There, an encampment of 3,500 members of a terrorist group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, were under guard by the u.s. military. The MEK was an Iranian opposition group that had been given refuge and support by Saddam Hussein for two decades. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, however, they'd surrendered to coalition forces and were disarmed in May 2003. DeVillers was assigned by the Department of Justice to question and gather information from the group. "When the Department of Justice called me, I told them I thought David would be good for the job," says Lockhart. "I had a lot of confidence in his practical side. He has a way of communicating with people from any number of backgrounds. He's a good people person, which I thought would make him good for this assignment."
Not everyone agreed with the choice of DeVlllers, however. "I have to admit, there were people in my office who did not want me to OK this, and David had to have my blessing before he could accept this assignment," says Lockhart. "There were some people in the Columbus office who called to express their concerns. They were afraid he would be hurt or killed."
Lockhart says he met with members of the Columbus staff. He also met with Julia. "She was scared," he says. "She was well aware of the risks, and aware that people were getting killed over there, whether they were military, U.N. people or aid workers. And though it was unlikely anything would happen, if you're there, there's a risk. On the other hand, whether you support the war or not--we're there. What are we going to do, just walk away? Somebody has to step up. David wanted to."
"It was very, very rough--especially right before I left," says DeVillers. "I think April was the worst month of violence since U.S. forces arrived."
It was April when the news of U.S. abuses of Iraqi captives at Abu Ghraib broke, and the insurgency seemingly stepped up the violence in response. As many American troops had been killed in the month prior to DeVillers's arrival in Baghdad as had been killed in the actual war leading to the fall of Baghdad. "It was difficult," Julia says.
At the beginning of May, De Villers hugged Julia, his 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son goodbye. He flew from Columbus to Washington, D.C., to Frankfort, Germany, and into Kuwait City.
There, he spent a couple of days. "I was kind of on the fast-track training program," DeVillers says. 'They handed me my Kevlar, my helmet, my gas mask and showed me how to use them. There were some videos: 'This is an lED [ImprovisedExplosive Device]. Watch for these.' 'Don't step on land mines.' 'Here's what you do if you're bitten by a camel spider.' Those sort of things."
From Kuwait City he took a transport plane to Baghdad. In the five months since Hussein's capture, the area around the Baghdad International Airport had become a secured area of about 15 square miles. There, DeVillers spent four days inside one of Hussein's castles, which now served, in part, as FBI headquarters. There, DeVillers was debriefed.
It wasn't war, however, that gave him his first real scare. It was wildlife. "One night I was walking across the street. It was very, very dark with no electricity and no lights," he says. "I heard something walking beside me, like 20 yards away." DeVillers turned his flashlight in the direction of the noise and was stunned. "It was frickin' hyena," he says. "The thing was huge, its shoulders were massive, and it probably seemed 10 times bigger than it really was. I thought it was going to eat
me, but it just looked at me and kept walking. I got across the street and told the colonel, 'I just saw a frickin' hyena!' He says, 'Oh yeah, they're around; I'm like, 'You've got to tell me these things.' "
A few days later, he shipped out to meet the MEK.
The group was organized in the 1960s and participated in the 1979 overthrow of the shah-which also included a siege of the u.s. Embassy in Tehran, during which American personnel were held hostage for 444 days. But the MEK also fell out of favor with the leader of Iran's takeover, Ayatollah Khomeini, and sought refuge in Iraq.
The MEK was placed on the State Department's original list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 1997. But its members were cooperative with DeVillers, almost welcoming him. ''As an organization, there's a lot said about them and a lot of it isn't true," DeVillers says. "They saw me as a conduit to the United States, to tell their side of the story. Their goal is to be taken off the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations." Organizations placed on the list are subject to financial and immigration sanctions that could include the blocking of their assets and the prosecution of their supporters.
Cooperative interviewees or not, it was a long way from the comforts of home. "I had just accepted the fact that it was going to suck in terms of conditions," says DeVillers, "and I wasn't wrong. What I didn't expect, though, was how high morale was. Everyone believed in their purpose. It was hard for me to whine and complain and bitch when I'm there two months, and they're there for a year or more."
The camp was composed primarily of tents and a few trailers, one of which housed DeVillers's office. He admits he's never been one for camping, but, "I slept great" on the canvas cots that were provided. "We worked long hours; there really wasn't much else to do. The MEK camp had some trees and their own little oasis. But other than that, it was completely flat sand desert. But at night, it was absolutely beautiful."
The threat of violence, however, was never far removed. Explosions could be heard with some regularity. ''At first whenever I'd hear an explosion I'd grab a helmet and look around to see if anyone was panicking," says DeVillers. "Over time, they all started making fun of me because eventually when I'd hear an explosion, I'd grab a camera. I wanted a picture."
A few were close; one caused DeVillers's office trailer to shake so hard that part of the roof collapsed, cutting one officer's head. The first explosion DeVillers heard, however, quickly became a source of comic relief for him--after he realized the sound that woke him was actually his helmet rolling off the top bunk and crashing on the floor beside him. "It's pitch dark and I'm thrashing around for my body armor, getting tangled up in the mosquito netting. My heart's going bananas and I'm thinking my room has been hit."
Back home, Julia could only guess what her husband was experiencing. Communication was limited. Phone calls were restricted to four minutes every other day, and emails were sporadic. Even when they could communicate, DeVillers couldn't disclose the classified nature of his assignment.
DeVillers's son was too young to understand his father's situation. Their daughter, however, wasn't. "She knew what was going on," says Julia, an accomplished children's author. "I didn't turn on the news in front of her, but we did discuss things regularly. She was very aware of Sept. 11, and I just explained to her that some of those bad guys were in Iraq and Daddy was helping a lot of people and going after those bad guys."
"I was always nervous," says Julia. "But I could hear his sense of purpose in his voice. He'd tell me everything was OK, and say, 'This has really, really been worthwhile.' Those were great moments for me."
There was one particular phone call that Julia remembers most: Dave letting her know his mission had finished early and he would be home soon. "That's when I knew it would be OK," Julia says. "It was intensely a relief. I still continue to have that feeling every few moments or so."
Before leaving, the MEK actually had a going-away party for DeVillers. "They had all this food," he says, which was quite welcome after weeks of military-issued freeze-dried meals. "Everyone was very cordial and polite. I even met one of their members who said he'd gone to Ohio State, here in this extremely isolated camp of terrorists, completely reliant on convoys for food, water, electricity. It was the most surreal experience of my life:'
It was mid June when Julia drove to Port Columbus to pick up her husband. "I picked him up about dinnertime," she says. "His plane was on time, fortunately."
The drive home was a blur. He talked, she talked; and the kids drifted off in the back seat. They had lots of catching up to do. The DeVillerses had put their home on the market just before Dave left. Julia selected and closed on a house in New Albany in her husband's absence. "She did a great job," he says. "Of course, there wasn't a whole lot I could say. She had a lot of leverage."
"He'd been living in tents for two months," says Julia. "I didn't think he would complain."
Once home, Dave says he woke his children gently and carried them into the house. He sat in his favorite chair and held them both for a long time, until all three had fallen asleep. "That was the roughest part of the whole thing--missing my family," he says.
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