Race Against TerrorBy Nicholas Gage, Vanity Fair, Jan2007 Issue 557, p64, 9p
On December 23, 1975, Richard S. Welch, the C.I.A.'s Athens station chief, and his wife, Cristina, left a Christmas party at the American ambassador's sprawling residence, near the U.S. Embassy. Their driver steered the Ford sedan through the jasmine-scented night toward their villa, in the residential suburb of Paleo Psychiko.
Welch, a slight, balding, tweedy 46-year-old with a thin gray mustache, was a Harvard-educated classicist who looked more like a professor than a C.I.A. agent. At the high-spirited embassy party, he had chatted amiably with his fellow American expatriates. If Welch was concerned that an Athens newspaper had recently printed the names and addresses of top C.I.A. officials in Greece, he didn't mention it. But he left at 10 P.M. — an early hour for Greece.
When his driver pulled up outside his two-story stucco villa, at 5 Vas. Frederiki Street, which had been home to every C.I.A. station chief before him, Welch didn't notice a green Simca following them. He was getting out of the car when someone called out in Greek, and he turned to see three masked men approaching on foot. Neither Mrs. Welch nor the driver noticed that a fourth person, sitting in the Simca, had the slender build and fine features of a woman. Gunshots punctured the silence, and Welch fell to the ground as the attackers ran back to their vehicle, which sped away.
Mrs. Welch ran to the nearby home of her husband's deputy, screaming, "They've shot Dick!" Richard Welch was dead by the time help arrived. The three Welch children spent Christmas Day preparing for the funeral of their father.
Welch's assassination was the start of a wave of bloodletting that for the next 27 years turned Athens and its suburbs into a war zone. Twenty-three men were murdered by guns, car bombs, missiles, and bazookas — five of them American, one British, two Turkish, and the rest wealthy Greek businessmen or prominent politicians of the conservative New Democracy Party.
The terrorists who perpetrated these crimes called themselves November 17, after the date in 1973 when students staged an uprising against the junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to '74. After the Welch killing, the group sent a statement full of Marxist rhetoric to three Greek newspapers and the new leftist French paper Libération, in Paris. (An editor of that paper was told to go to the home of Jean-Paul Sartre to pick up the document.) But none of the newspapers published the statement, suspecting that it came from a fringe group eager to falsely claim credit for the crime.
A year later, when members of the group assassinated a former police commander under the junta, the same papers received a second proclamation, and printed both. These statements would become a hallmark of November 17, which would operate for nearly 30 years without a single arrest. Their goal was to inspire an anti-capitalist popular uprising against Greece's ruling classes by showing that agents of the "Western imperialists who propped them up" could be attacked without fear of consequences.
The terrorists eventually felt so invulnerable that they began taunting the police. After two killers rode motorcycles through central Athens carrying a three-foot assault rifle, a jeering letter was sent to the newspapers: "We circulate under their nose with a weapon that is visible from a kilometer away." Members of November 17 fired rockets at foreign companies, set off bombs at embassies and hotels, stole bazookas from the Athens War Museum, and raided a military base to seize weapons, later sending Greek newspapers a photograph of the armory they'd accumulated, arranged in front of a red-and-yellow "17N" flag.
With one brazen attack after another, November 17 achieved mythical status in the land where myths and legends began. But as the 20th century neared its end, the terrorists threatened Greece's opportunity to reclaim its most cherished tradition — the Olympic Games. Greece, where the Olympics were born, in the eighth century B.C., had never hosted them officially since they were revived, in 1896. Then, in 1997, after decades of trying, Athens finally earned the right to hold the Games, in the summer of 2004.
But with November 17 making a joke of law enforcement, how could anyone feel safe at the Athens Games? No one could forget the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics, in 1972. "Can the Greek government assure American and British athletes and visitors that November 17 won't be part of the welcoming committee in 2004?" asked former C.I.A. director James Woolsey, in a New York Times article. "If they offer those assurances without breaking the group, how much are those assurances worth?"
"Into the Lion's Den"
In 1999, Greek prime minister Kostas Simitis was forced to replace three members of his Cabinet who had participated in a bungled effort to hide a wanted Kurdish rebel leader. One of them was the minister of public order, in charge of security for the Olympic Games.
To fill this hot seat, Simitis turned to a young politician who had no experience in law enforcement-44-year-old Michalis Chrisohoidis. An intense, twice-divorced lawyer who had grown up on a small farm in northern Greece, Chrisohoidis had been elected to Parliament at the age of 34 and had worked under Simitis, an economist, in the Ministry of Trade and Industry.
At first, Chrisohoidis was not eager to accept his former boss's offer. "I asked him bluntly, 'Why are you throwing me into the lion's den?,'" Chrisohoidis recalls. "He replied that we had to eradicate terrorism in Greece before the Olympics or see our country humiliated before the world. This just increased my anxiety, because terrorism had been a priority for all administrations in the last 25 years, but not one member of November 17 had been arrested or even identified."
Chrisohoidis had vivid memories of 1989, his first year in Parliament, when his fellow M.P. Pavlos Bakoyannis was killed as he entered his office building. Struck by six bullets, Bakoyannis managed to stagger into the building, leaving a trail of blood until he collapsed and died.
At the time, Bakoyannis's father-in-law, New Democracy Party leader Constantin Mitsotakis, had just secured a major victory in national elections. Bakoyannis's young widow, Dora, won her dead husband's seat in Parliament and took the lead in passing tough new anti-terrorism legislation. When her party lost power, in 1993, the new, socialist PASOK government immediately repealed the law, but she continued to speak out against her husband's assassins. "The long struggle to turn Greek public opinion against November 17 … began with the killing of my husband," says Dora Bakoyannis, now the Greek foreign minister.
International criticism of Greece for not making any progress against November 17 had been building since 1989. The headlines in the U.S., whose citizens had been targeted as agents of imperialism, included the following: GREECE: CLIMATE FOR TERROR (The Washington Post); GREECE, HAVEN FOR TERRORISTS (The New York Times); GREECE: SANCTUARY OK INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM (Reader's Digest). After Welch's killing began the reign of terror, November 17 killed 4 more Americans and wounded more than 100.
On November 15, 1983, U.S. Navy captain George Tsantes, 53, the chief of the Joint United States Military Assistance Group, Greece, and his Greek-American driver, who was taking Tsantes to work, were ambushed at 7:30 A.M. Two men on a scooter, their faces covered by crash helmets, pulled up alongside the car at a traffic light and fired four bullets into Tsantes and three into his driver.
"It was a terrible loss for us," Tsantes's daughter, Stephanie, would tell a Greek court 20 years later. "When I returned home, my mother was curled [on the floor], crying hysterically. Even today she's so afraid of this country that she doesn't dare to travel here."
On June 28, 1988, U.S. Navy captain William Nordeen, 51, who lived in the suburb of Kefalari, kissed his wife good-bye and walked out to his car. As he drove past a Toyota sedan parked down the street from his house, a bomb in the Toyota exploded, setting his car on fire and hurling his body into the yard of a deserted villa 45 feet away.
On March 12, 1991, as U.S. Air Force sergeant Ronald Stewart, 35, was walking near his home, in the seaside suburb of Glyfada, a bomb in a parked car was detonated by remote control, blowing off both his legs. He was taken to a hospital and bled to death on the operating table. He had been due to return to the U.S. in two weeks. Stewart was a purchasing agent for the military hospital in Athens and had nothing to do with military operations, but, as the head terrorist told one of his assassins, "even the small fry are to blame."
"What Took You So Long?"
That no one was arrested in connection with any of these attacks was not necessarily proof of the terrorists' criminal genius. According to a report compiled later by the U.S. Embassy in Athens, the Greek police officers who first arrived at the scene of Stewart's murder "demonstrated an egregious lack of adequate crime scene presentation/protection … and collection protocol by evidence technicians."
One of the first things Chrisohoidis did as minister of public order was to call for all the files on November 17 crimes and summon the man who had been in charge of the anti-terrorism unit in the national police: Fotis Nasiakos, a short, stocky 47-year-old, with unruly salt-and-pepper hair, a florid complexion, and the tense restlessness of a veteran field commander.
Nasiakos had spent 15 years in the anti-terrorism unit, three of them as chief, trying to make headway against November 17, but he had received little support from his superiors in the police or from the revolving cast of politicians in the ministry.
"When I met Fotis for the first time, I saw a man who was demoralized," Chrisohoidis recalls. "He put some bound papers on my desk and said, 'I know you're going to replace me in the next round of promotions, but before I go I want to leave this report with you so all my work doesn't come to nothing.' I read the report and saw that it was a comprehensive overview of November 17 attacks, with some telling insights." Even though Nasiakos didn't belong to Chrisohoidis's party, the minister kept him as chief of the unit and told him to have the intelligence section pursue the leads in his report.
"We don't have an intelligence section" came the response. So Chrisohoidis ordered Nasiakos to set one up.
To head the new section, Chrisohoidis and Nasiakos chose an earnest detective named Fotis Papageorgiou, whose dark hair, broad face, and penetrating brown eyes behind half-rimmed glasses gave him the appearance of a thoughtful Russell Crowe. Computer-savvy, with a keen memory and a passion for details, Papageorgiou, then 39, was assigned to pore over clues from November 17 attacks, make connections, and report his findings to Nasiakos.
At about the same time, the special prosecutor assigned to the anti-terrorism unit asked to be transferred. In his place came 44-year-old Yiannis Diotis, an Athens-trained lawyer with a halo of gray hair, a boxer's nose, and perpetually frowning eyebrows. Diotis had served in the post once before and was eager for another chance to build a case against November 17.
This new team — the minister, Chrisohoidis; the anti-terrorism chief. Nasiakos; the head of intelligence, Papageorgiou; and the special prosecutor, Diotis — soon began to transform the campaign to bring down November 17. "Until they took over, each crime had been investigated separately and then tucked away in a file when no progress was made," says U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs R. Nicholas Burns, who was then ambassador to Greece. "They began to look at November 17 in a comprehensive way for the first time."
A study of the files revealed, among other things, that November 17's typed proclamations frequently alluded to France, echoed the thinking of French radicals, and were first sent to a French paper. Following up, Chrisohoidis asked Nasiakos to compile a list of activists based in Paris during the junta years and to find out what they had been up to since then. Working closely with Papageorgiou's intelligence unit, Nasiakos came up with some 250 names. "We tracked down all of the names except one, says Papageorgiou. "All had returned to their pre-junta interests and were easy to locate — except for Alexandros Giotopoulos, who had vanished."
Chrisohoidis decided to go to Paris and speak to the head of France's anti-terrorism unit. When he got there, the first thing the French official said was "What took you so long to come to us?"
The French described Giotopoulos as six feet two inches tall, with incipient jowls, inquisitive blue eyes, and a genial manner that could turn instantly to cold hostility. He was born in Paris in 1944, the son of a Greek Trotskyite who opposed the uprising of Greek Communist guerrillas in the late 1940s. Alexandros Giotopoulos would strive to erase this blot on his family's Marxist credentials by becoming the biggest radical of all. Even among the Greek leftists who spent the junta years plotting revolution in the smoky cafés of Paris's Left Bank, Giotopoulos stood out both for his height and for the ferocity of his plans.
"The first mention [of Giotopoulos] in our own files was in a junta case tried in Thessaloniki in 1971," recalls the former anti-terrorism chief, Nasiakos. "He wasn't at the trial, because he had fled to Paris, and his name was misspelled as 'Alexandros Yiatropoulos,' but he fit the description of the tall assassin mentioned by witnesses in several killings." In one instance, a victim lived long enough to say, "The tall one got me."
French files showed that Giotopoulos had been picked up by Paris police in 1971 for carrying false documents, but was released and disappeared. Informants reported that he had gone to Cuba to study with the Tupamaros, an urban guerrilla group founded in Uruguay that engaged in political assassinations, including the kidnapping and murder of F.B.I, agent Dan Mitrione, dramatized in the film Stale of Siege.
That struck a chord with Greek investigators, because the influence of the Tupamaros was evident in the November 17 flag — a yellow star with "17N" in its center against a red background. The Tupamaros' flag includes a red diagonal band with a yellow star in the middle and a black T in its center.
Shattering the Myth
With the anti-terrorism unit now on track, Chrisohoidis felt confident enough to move Nasiakos out of it and make him chief of the national police. His replacement as anti-terrorism chief was Stelios Syros, a street-smart veteran of the homicide bureau. A never-married workaholic, Syros used the sources he had developed during two decades in the criminal and anarchist underworld of Athens to gather names of suspected November 17 assassins.
Syros's efforts were complicated by the consensus among Greeks that November 17 couldn't be stopped — certainly not by Greek police or the Greek government, which, it was widely believed, were not even trying to capture them. In one incident, in 1991, police were told to look for November 17 assassins lurking in a van near Kolonaki, the fashionable square where stylish Athenians crowd the outdoor cafés. The police tailed the van until the occupants opened the back door, revealing that they were heavily armed. The police commander immediately called off the pursuit, saying later that he didn't want to instigate a gun battle that would likely kill innocent civilians.
Eyewitnesses to November 17 murders were afraid to testify, because the police were powerless to protect them. One passerby who saw the May 28, 1997, killing of young Greek shipowner Costas Peratikos, in Piraeus, appeared on the evening news to describe the scene. Two days later, the witness found his car torched.
Even worse for the anti-terrorism team, many ordinary citizens considered the terrorists to be heroes — assassinating rich capitalists and Western diplomats whose countries they blamed for Greece's political turmoil and for Turkey's 1974 invasion and partial takeover of the Greek island of Cyprus. Graffiti throughout the nation demanded, AMERICA OUT OF GREECE and DEATH TO THE IMPERIALISTS.
The November 17 assassins carefully cultivated their heroic image. Their proclamations tried to justify their killings but never mentioned the banks they robbed to support themselves. (Over 25 years, the group stole some $2 million, none of which has been recovered.) When they killed Greeks, they left statements on the scene, but when they killed foreigners they took days to issue them, because they often picked their victims at random and knew nothing about them. They would wait to get the details from news reports.
The first November 17 murder on Michalis Chrisohoidis's watch occurred on June 8, 2000. British defense attaché Brigadier Stephen Saunders was driving on Kifissias Avenue when two November 17 members pulled up on a motorbike. The man sitting behind the driver of the motorbike pumped several bullets into Saunders's abdomen.
Chrisohoidis rushed to the hospital where Saunders was being treated. "When the surgeon announced his death to Mrs. Saunders, describing the damage the eight bullets had done, she collapsed," Chrisohoidis says. "I was in shock but also very angry."
Chrisohoidis vowed that the Greek reaction to Saunders's murder would be very different from those in the past. "We made certain that everyone in the government condemned the killing," he says. "We encouraged the media to show the impact the murder had on the Saunders family. Then we held two memorial services and invited politicians from all parties to attend, which they did in huge numbers."
"The strong reaction to the Saunders murder was pivotal," says Sir David Veness, who was sent to Athens by Scotland Yard in the aftermath of the killing. "It allowed Michalis Chrisohoidis to accomplish three essential things: to make his own people in PASOK stop appearing to support radicals, to break the taboo of his government against seeking help from foreign agencies, and to undermine the support November 17 had with the public."
If the Greek public needed another reason to change its attitude toward November 17, it came with the close of the 2000 Summer Olympics, in Sydney. Suddenly, the world looked toward Athens, wondering what would happen when the Games opened there four years later. International opinion was not optimistic. A May 2000 article in Time began: "Twenty terrorist attacks against American targets in a 12-month period; a combined 40 strikes on U.S., French and British holdings; 52 anti-American protest marches, seven rocket attacks…. The country in question isn't Afghanistan or Iran. It's Greece."
Shortly after the national elections in October 2000, in which the Simitis government retained power by a slim margin, Chrisohoidis went on television to denounce November 17. On December 21, the families of the victims formed a group called Os Edo-or "No More." The group was headed by Costas Peratikos's father, Michael; the family of Pavlos Bakoyannis; and Dimitri Momferatos, whose father, a publisher, had been murdered.
The killing of Saunders and the activities of Os Edo provoked national shame and caused a sea change in Greek public opinion. The shift moved the Simitis government to push a strong new anti-terrorism law, which was finally adopted in 2002. "The law was crucial," says Yiannis Diotis, the special prosecutor. It allowed DNA evidence to be used in court for the first time, made being part of a terrorist organization a crime, provided for witness protection and lenient sentences for cooperating criminals, and called for terrorists to be tried by a panel of judges without jurors. "In previous trials of violent radicals, jurors participated and in most cases they were too frightened to convict anybody," Diotis says.
An Explosive Lead
With the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics now just two years away, November 17 was lying low. Chrisohoidis and his team knew they had to do something to make the terrorists show their hand. In mid-June, they decided to leak a false report that the leader of November 17 had been identified and that multiple arrests were imminent.
It worked. "The break we had been hoping for finally came," says Chrisohoidis, "and when it did, all the policies we had put in place began to pay off so well and so quickly that it left even us stunned."
Savas Xiros, 40, a tall, swarthy, baby-faced man who made a living as a painter of religious icons, was walking by Piraeus harbor on the evening of June 29, 2002, carrying a heavy black bag. The contents of the bag were not religious icons but a gun, a grenade, and the components of a homemade time bomb. Xiros was to assemble the bomb and place it near a ticket office of the Minoan Ferry Lines, which had recently been accused of negligence after one of its ferries sank in calm seas with 500 people aboard, killing 82.
Police believe that the leaders of November 17, suffering from the loss of public support and perhaps fearing that the authorities were closing in on them, had decided that an attack on the ferry company would restore their image as freedom fighters avenging Greek citizens against heartless capitalists.
Xiros was an explosives expert and had been involved in the car bombings that killed Captain Nordeen and Sergeant Stewart. He usually used European-made timing devices, but this time he used a Chinese clock. As he assembled the bomb, it blew up in his hands with a thunderous explosion. Witnesses reported seeing an accomplice running from the scene as Xiros lay in a spreading pool of blood.
According to Yiannis Diotis. "The last three fingers of his right hand were blown off and shrapnel hit him all over his upper body, slashing his eyes, breaking the tympanic drum in one ear, and smashing into his chest, causing one lung to collapse. The last was the worst of his injuries, and he could have died." Savas Xiros was unconscious when an ambulance took him to Evangelismos Hospital, and he remained so for four days. But without saying a word, he provided Michalis Chrisohoidis's team with enough information to begin the dismantling of November 17.
At the suggestion of Scotland Yard. Chrisohoidis sent a photograph of Savas Xiros — taken from the ID card found in his pocket — to Greek newspapers and television channels, requesting that anyone recognizing the suspect call a special phone number where they could speak in complete anonymity.
Immediately people began to call in with information. "After a 24-year drought of any hard evidence, information started coming at us like a flood," says Chrisohoidis. One woman called to say that she had seen the man in the photo entering a rented first-floor apartment near her own on Patmos Street in Kalo Patissia, a working-class neighborhood of Athens.
The police had found a set of keys on Xiros and a .38-caliber handgun in the street near his body. Chrisohoidis gave the gun to his forensic staff, who determined that it had been used to murder a policeman during a November 17 bank robbery. A senior officer of the anti-terrorism unit took the keys to the address on Patmos Street, then called Chrisohoidis from inside the apartment: "Oh my God!" the officer said in a shaking voice. "You won't believe what's in here — guns, knives, grenades, rockets, a November 17 flag."
A squad of police forensic experts closed off the area and examined the apartment in detail. Along with the weapons, they found the typewriter that had produced all the manifestos and a computer with several disks outlining plans for future attacks.
Three days later, acting on information they had found in the hideout, the police raided a second safe house, at 73 Damareos Street, in the middle-class Athens area of Pangrati. There they found more weapons, documents, and manifestos bearing the fingerprints of a man they believed to be November 17's founder, leader, and chief assassin — Alexandros Giotopoulos.
Meanwhile, the police took fingerprints from the intact hand of the unconscious icon painter and matched one of them to a fingerprint found on a blue plastic bag that had been left in an abandoned getaway car used in the killing of Costas Peratikos, in 1997.
On his fourth day in the hospital, still blind and attached to tubes and a heart monitor, Savas Xiros realized as he faded in and out of consciousness that there were two men sitting next to his bed: Yiannis Diotis and Stelios Syros. They soon established a good-cop-bad-cop M.O. that would prove very effective.
"Stelios Syros was the spark plug," according to a former official in the antiterrorism unit. "He's not a man to draft lengthy reports, but he can walk into a room, look over a suspect, and with a few minutes of chatter know what his weaknesses are. He can shift smoothly from stern father figure to concerned friend to tough cop to patient psychologist as the situation warrants. Syros got so close to Savas that Savas said at one point during the 50 days he was in the hospital, 'I love Stelios more than my father.'"
Diotis, by contrast, at one point angered Xiros so much that he refused to speak for days. But the prosecutor also engineered a clever legal maneuver. Under Greek law, anyone in detention must be charged within 24 hours or released. If the police filed charges against Xiros, his accomplices would read about it in the papers and scatter.
Diotis decided that Xiros was not under arrest at all. "He was coming in and out of consciousness, so how could we charge a man who was in no condition to understand the charges?," Diotis asks, shrugging innocently. "So I decided to hold him as a material witness, not as a suspect, which gave us the opportunity to question him without the need to charge him and alert everyone to what he was saying." As he came to, according to Diotis, the first thing Xiros heard was the prosecutor telling him, "We know you're November 17, and we've got the evidence to prove it."
As Diotis recalls, Xiros sighed and nodded. "I know where I made my mistake," he said. "It was the blue plastic bag that I left in the car." He admitted he had been involved in Costas Peratikos's murder. This was the biggest breakthrough in the 27-year investigation of November 17, and the team celebrated with whiskey and cigars.
Syros and Diotis did not leave Xiros's side as he recuperated from his wounds and underwent a delicate operation that restored his sight in one eye. Police say Xiros confessed to having taken part in additional murders — those of Nordeen, Stewart, and Saunders — but he would not give up his November 17 comrades, providing only pseudonyms and false physical descriptions. (He later recanted his confession.)
Xiros had nine siblings — five brothers and four sisters. His father was a priest from the island of Ikaria. His mother, Mashoula, was such an ardent Marxist that everyone called her Moska ("Moscow" in Greek), a high-ranking police official says.
As soon as news of Xiros's accident hit the front pages, he was visited at the hospital by his father and his brother Christodoulos Xiros, 44, a hulk of a man who was a maker of musical instruments. To the television reporters clustered outside the hospital door, the pair expressed shock at Savas's accident. Barred by the police from entering his brother's room, Christodoulos shouted, "Stay strong, Savas!" Inside, Diotis and Syros immediately started asking Savas about Christodoulos's role in November 17.
On July 16, Christodoulos returned to the hospital and was arrested. That same day, Fotis Papageorgiou was dispatched to Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, to seize the Xiroses' younger brother Vassilis, 30, a wild-eyed, unkempt shepherd and sometime motorcycle mechanic.
Although Savas was reluctant to betray his accomplices, the police say, Vassilis spilled everything. "Once we got to Vassilis, we had it," recalls Papageorgiou. "He told us how he helped kill Saunders, [and] identified everyone he could by their rightful names. It was something! The kid can barely write his name, a real simpleton, but he gave up everyone he knew. When giving us his statement, he paused and asked, 'Is this going to take much longer? If I don't milk my goats, they're going to burst.' He thought after admitting to all those killings he would go back and milk his goats!"
Back in Athens, Diotis was questioning Christodoulos. "With what we had from Vassilis and Savas, Christodoulos didn't take long to start talking," Diotis recalls. "He's the most vicious killer of the three. He laughed as he told about all the people he killed."
As the Xiros brothers talked, officers from the anti-terrorism unit fanned out, arresting eight more members of November 17. For nearly a month after Savas blew himself up, the five-man team worked around the clock. In the evening, they would meet in the office of Michails Chrisohoidis, who would bring out a bottle of good malt whiskey and order food from La Strada, a nearby Italian restaurant. They would smoke and talk nearly all night, discussing strategy and piecing together information about the terrorists who were still at large.
"My wife kept a record, and in one 18-day period I went home to sleep for a total of 18 hours," says Papageorgiou. The workload even prevented Nasiakos from spending time with his wife after she was diagnosed with a serious illness. "She's had health problems ever since," he says. "I worked hard, but she paid the price."
The Biggest Fish of All
Confessions and arrests were coming so fast that the police could hardly keep up. But one man, Alexandros Giotopoulos, remained at large, and there was no clue to his whereabouts. Then Savas Xiros. still in the hospital, let a name slip.
Xiros had told Diotis and Syros that the leader of the group was known only as O Psilos — the tall one — or by his pseudonym, Lambros. Exploiting the bond he had built up with the wounded terrorist, Stelios Syros asked Xiros to tell him anything he could remember about Lambros. Xiros recalled that once, when he drove Lambros to a ferry in Piraeus, someone had called out the name Michalis and the boss had turned around.
Diotis jumped in, asking what Lambros/Michalis was doing taking a ferry from Piraeus. He had a summer home somewhere on an island near Paros and Leros, Xiros replied. He didn't know where, but he remembered parking the car on the Piraeus-Patmos-Leros ferry in a space reserved for the next-to-last stop. The investigators quickly determined that this stop was on the tiny island of Lipsi.
Xiros provided this scrap of information on July 16, the day his brothers confessed. The investigators knew that the next day's headlines might cause Giotopoulos, wherever he was, to disappear yet again. If he left Greece, they would never find him.
Nasiakos immediately called the police station on Lipsi and learned that it was staffed by two officers and that one was away, leaving a 25-year-old named Socrates Sioris as the only lawman on the island. Nasiakos asked Sioris if he knew of any Lipsi residents named Michalis.
"There's a Michalis Economou who has been battling the mayor over the color of his house," the young officer replied. "There's a rule here that all island homes must be white, but he insisted on painting his pink."
"Is he still there?"
"Yes, I saw him today."
Nasiakos asked Sioris to find out if Economou had made any reservations on the ferry. He warned that the man might have his own way of leaving perhaps on a private boat — and that if he did slip away, as he had done before, the entire campaign to stop November 17 would be lost.
'I started to panic." Nasiakos recalls. "Here we had finally located the leader of November 17 and the only one close to him was one novice police officer. But he turned out to be a palikari [brave lad] with great instincts, who checked the reservation list for the next day's ferry and found it included a Michalis Economou. It was too late for us to send officers from Athens, so our only options were Socrates and the four officers from the nearest island. Leros.
"On the following morning, the Athens ferry went only as far as Leros, and a local ferry went to Lipsi to pick up passengers for it," Nasiakos continues. "I told the Leros officers to go on the local ferry and when they got close to Giotopoulos, if he made any sudden move, to just push him into the sea because we didn't know what weapons he might be carrying — guns, grenades, explosives.
"When the local ferry landed on Lipsi, the four officers were on it, wailing, and Socrates came behind Giotopoulos as he stepped on the boat. They grabbed him in a sandwich and brought him down on the deck."
Fotis Papageorgiou hopped on a helicopter commandeered from the fire department and flew to Leros to reel in the biggest fish of all. "When I got to the police station on Leros," Papageorgiou says, "I saw that they had Giotopoulos lied to a radiator -hands, feet, chest — really secure.
"'Hello, Alecko,' I said to him, He looked at me contemptuously and snarled, 'You're a lackey for the Americans. What kind of Greek are you to let yourself become such a stooge?'
"I let him have it: 'I didn't bring the Americans or the Brits or the French. You did with your pointless killings. Now we have F.B.I., C.I.A., S.A.S. [Britain's special forces], foreign agents everywhere we turn, and you're the one responsible, not me.'"
This outburst took the wind out of Giotopoulos's sails. He slumped, defeated, and whined, "I know what you're going to do with me. In a week I'm going to be in Guantánamo," Papageorgiou recalls.
"That's what he was most afraid of," the intelligence chief remembers. "He still is. They all are."
Giotopoulos was brought hack to Athens and held in isolation. Of all the suspects arrested up to then, only Giotopoulos consistently maintained that he had nothing to do with November 17.
Investigating Giotopoulos's background, the team learned that for more than 30 years he had been using the alias Michalis Economou (taken from an early Greek Communist leader), which was printed on a forged identity card made for him by Savas Xiros. As Economou, he posed as a professor and book translator.
"He got into a university [in Paris] but never got a degree," says Diotis. "We did such a thorough check on him that we found out that he forged a high-school academic award he later boasted about. When I questioned him and mentioned the forgery, he was floored. Later he charged that we had used illegal methods to intrude into his private life. He's a piece of work!"
Both of Giotopoulos's residences, the illegally pink house on Lipsi and his Athens apartment, were registered in the name of his longtime companion, a Frenchwoman named Marie-Thérèse Peynaud. The investigating team called Peynaud in for questioning, but. like Giotopoulos, she firmly denied knowing anything about November 17. "She's very hard, very cool." says Nasiakos. "When we first brought her together with Giotopoulos, she was shocked about the charges against him and feigned ignorance that she even knew his real name. 'Michalis,' she said, 'why are these people calling you Alecko?'"
Peynaud signed a statement (or the police saying she had met Michalis Economou in Paris in 1973 and developed a relationship with him. "We usually met at cafés in the Latin Quarter district where students gathered." her statement read. She said she had accompanied him to Greece "at Christmas of 1975 and stayed for 15 days." which would have put her in the country at the time of Welch's murder. Four years later, she moved to Greece permanently to live with Michalis and eventually found a job at the Greek-French school in Athens. In 1993 she bought a second home, in Lipsi.
Peynaud, who retired after 18 years of teaching when she learned she had cancer, did not always have a smooth relationship with Giotopoulos. While living with her, according to information given to Greek police, Giotopoulos began a relationship with another woman — a teacher at the same school who was 14 years younger than Peynaud. According to what the younger teacher told police, her affair with Giotopoulos began in the early 1990s, and he went to live with her for four months after Peynaud found out about the relationship.
"Giotopoulos loved three things: women, lobster, and cigars." says Papageorgiou. "When I arrested him in Lipsi, he was carrying a small hag that had five cigars in it, and when he saw me searching it he shouted, 'Don't take my cigars.'"
Giotopoulos's capture led to even more arrests. "When you count the number of defendants along with the criminal acts they committed," says Diotis, "it turns out that in a period of one month we completed more than 1,000 criminal investigations. That has to be some kind of record, and not just for Greece."
One of those arrested was Pavlos Serifis, a balding, bespectacled hospital worker with a thick mustache and a receding chin, who turned out to be one of the original members of November 17 and one of the tour involved in the killing of Richard Welch.
In his confession, Serifis stated that the others involved in the Welch murder were his cousin Yiannis Serifis, Giotopoulos, and a woman he referred to as Anna. "She must have been about 30 years old at the time, tall, around live feet seven inches, blonde, good-looking, and well educated." he stated.
Pavlos Serifis did not divulge Anna's identity in his confession. Yiannis Serifis and Peynaud have denied any involvement with November 17, and Peynaud has not been charged with any crime.
"A Creek Achievement"
A month and a day after Savas Xiros became the first November 17 member in custody, nearly every suspect had been arrested. But there was still an important leader at large. A dark, balding, bearded man with the sad eyes of a Byzantine saint, Dimitris Koufodinas was a beekeeper and seller of honey. He was also believed to be November 17's head of operations. Giotopoulos would select the victims, and Koufodinas would arrange the attacks. Despite a nationwide hunt. Koufodinas was nowhere to be found. But on September 5 he turned himself in.
Koufodinas, who had been living with the former wife of Savas Xiros, told police he was shocked and disappointed at Giotopoulos's disavowal of November 17. Koufodinas said proudly that he considered the assassinations political acts of resistance against exploiters of the Greek people.
"Koufodinas took full responsibility for his actions," says Nasiakos.
"But he did not say what actions and what his role was in them." Diotis interjects, "only that he was a member of November 17 and he took political responsibility for it."
"And he also said that November 17 was now finished." adds Papageorgiou.
Although some later retracted their confessions, almost all of the suspects were convicted of multiple murders in a trial that ended almost a year before the Olympics began. Most received multiple life sentences. In Greece, however, a life term is limited to 25 years, and "lifers" are eligible for parole after 16 years, even those convicted of murder. Those sentenced to multiple life terms can apply for parole after 20 years.
The killers of the four Americans may be released from prison in 17 years, or even earlier on medical grounds, something that does not please Diotis. "Savas has threatened to kill me when he gets out. and I'll only be in my late 60s then," he says, noting that he travels with bodyguards wherever he goes even now.
Another disappointment is that Richard Welch's assassination was not even mentioned during the trial, because in Greece there is a 20-year statute of limitations on all crimes, including murder.
Alexandros Giotopoulos. who Pavlos Serifis said pulled the trigger on Welch, received 21 life sentences for other murders he had committed. Serifis. the lookout on the Welch murder, was given 8 to 15 years for his involvement in other killings, hut he suffers from multiple sclerosis and is being permitted to spend his confinement at home.
While his cousin Yiannis could not he tried for the Welch murder, he was tried under the new law forbidding membership in a terrorist organization, as was Koufodinas's girlfriend, whose prints, police alleged, had been found in a November 17 hideout. Both were acquitted, but their cases are currently being re-heard by an Athens appeals court along with those of all the other defendants.
As for the anti-terrorism team, only Papageorgiou remains in place, as head of the intelligence section. Nasiakos retired from the police force. Stelios Syros was promoted to deputy chief of the national police, and Diotis was reassigned to cases involving antiquities smuggling.
The fact that Yiannis Serifis and "Anna," whom Pavlos Serifis implicated in the Welch case, are walking around free does not please Michalis Chrisohoidis, who was re-elected to Parliament in 2004 but had to give up his post as minister of public order when PASOK lost to the New Democracy Party. Still, he believes that both could be convicted of November 17 crimes that fall within the statute of limitations. "My group would have done it if we hadn't lost the election." he says. "It can still be done."
"We haven't closed the books on anyone," says his successor. Byron Polydoras. Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns has another warning for November 17 assassins: "Greece may have a statute of limitations on murder, but the U.S. doesn't."
What is certain is that November 17 is "finished." as Dimitris Koufodinas declared. If you consider how long and how freely its killers operated, that's a remarkable accomplishment for the men who brought about its destruction.
"It was a Greek achievement," says Tom Miller, the U.S. ambassador from 2001 to 2004. "We all helped the Brits, the French, our agencies — but the credit for dismantling November 17 belongs to the Greeks: to Michalis Chrisohoidis and his team. What they did was not only to end the reign of the most enduring and brutal terrorists in Europe, but to ensure a successful Olympic Games in 2004."
"If we had not stopped November 17," notes Yiannis Diotis, "and a few months before the Olympic Games began they had fired a rocket at one of the venues, how many would have risked coming to the Olympics in Athens? Would the 2004 Olympics have been held at all?"
Pavlos Bakoyannis managed to stagger into the building, leaving a trail of blood until he collapsed and died.
"Oh my God!" the officer said. "You wont believe what's in here — guns, knives, grenades, rockets, a November 17 flag."
"I told the officers, if [Giotopoulos] made any sudden move, to just push him into the sea," says Nasiakos.
"Savas [Xiros] has threatened to kill me when he gets out, and I'll only be in my late 60s then," says Diotis.