CIA Contractor's Lawyer: Detainee Died From Heart Attack

A lawyer for the former CIA (search) contractor accused of fatally beating an Afghan detainee said Friday the prisoner died from a heart attack while in custody.

The contractor and former Army special operations soldier, 38-year-old David A. Passaro (search) of Lillington, was charged Thursday with two counts each of assault and assault with a dangerous weapon — a flashlight. He has a detention hearing scheduled Tuesday morning in U.S. District Court in Raleigh.

Passaro was charged in connection with the June 21, 2003, death of Abdul Wali. Wali had gone to a U.S. base in Afghanistan (search) to surrender because authorities wanted to talk to him about rocket attacks against the base. He died three days later.

The arrest was the first time civilian charges have been brought in the investigation of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Civilian attorney Gerald Beaver of Fayetteville said he has a transcript of an Islamic radio broadcast from June 27, 2003, in which an Afghan official said an examination showed Wali died of a heart attack.

"His story is he's innocent," Beaver said. "That's all I can tell you."

The transcript provided by Beaver from Mashhad Radio in Iran said "heart disease has been given as the cause of death of an Afghan national who was being held in detention by U.S. forces in Asadabad city, the centre of Afghanistan's Konar Province."

The report quoted the governor of Konar Province where the prison is located and said there were no signs of assault on the body.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Raleigh, which will prosecute the case, had no immediate comment. The Justice Department said Thursday that no autopsy was performed to establish a cause of death.

Beaver said he planned to meet with Passaro, who is being held until Tuesday's hearing, to determine whether he would represent him. Beaver had represented Passaro since he received a letter from federal prosecutors in March saying he was being investigated.

At the time of Wali's death, Passaro was on leave from a civilian Army medical job at Fort Bragg while doing the contract work for the CIA, according to the Army Special Operations Command.

If convicted, Passaro faces up to 40 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

Some people who know Passaro say he has a history of aggressive behavior, while others said the alleged actions seem out of character.

A spokeswoman for the Hartford, Conn., Police Department, Nancy Mulroy, said Passaro graduated from the city's police academy in 1990 but was relieved of duty after he was arrested by state police before completing his probationary period.

He was convicted in 1991 of breach of peace, state police said. He paid a $100 fine.

Passaro's ex-wife, Kerry Passaro of Fayetteville, said her husband had assaulted a neighbor and was violent throughout their marriage.

North Carolina records show David and Kerry Passaro were divorced in 2001, and that Passaro remarried a year later. Since then, Harnett County deputy sheriffs were called twice to the rural house to investigate domestic fights and again to look into a complaint that Passaro fired a gun at a neighbor's dog.

The chief of the Connecticut volunteer fire department where Passaro served from 1990 to 1991 said the acts described in the indictment are at odds with his memory of a dedicated young man who longed for a career in public safety.

"He was one of those 110 percent people," said Joseph Lorenzetti, 49. "Whatever you needed the young man to do, he was more than cooperative. ... From when I knew the gentleman, this seems very out of character."

A former Green Beret medic and Army Ranger, Passaro began his contract with the CIA in December 2002. He arrived at the Afghan base in mid-May 2003, a few weeks before the alleged abuse occurred, U.S. officials said.

Passaro's brother, Stephen Passaro, told WTNH-TV he loves his brother and does not believe the Afghanistan allegations.

"I don't even know that there really was anybody that allegedly was killed during an alleged interrogation," he said.