“You fuckin’ amateur.” —Thomas Vaccaro, Danny’s brother, in Danny Casolaro Died for You
I spent about two hours going over the Danny Casolaro case with Timeline Theatre the other night. Guided by Casolaro’s playwriting cousin Dominic Orlando, director Nick Bowling, and six skilled actors, I waded through topics ranging from a software maker’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice to the Reagan presidential campaign’s $40 million bribe to the Iranians. Among much else, we covered secret munitions research on an Indian reservation, how the Bank of Credit and Commerce International got to be a GCB (global criminal bank), loads of dirty tricks, and sundry suspicious deaths—including Casolaro’s own. George H. W. Bush’s name came up. So did Lyndon LaRouche’s. Most important, I was apprised of how Casolaro thought all these tidbits tied together in a grand conspiracy—a kind of Unified Crime Theory he referred to as the “Octopus.”
To be honest, I didn’t understand all of it. But then it seems probable that Casolaro didn’t either.
The real-life hero of Orlando’s Danny Casolaro Died for You was a rather hunky novelist, poet, horse breeder, and publisher who, much to his misfortune, also did investigative journalism. Around 1990 he got interested in the struggles of Bill Hamilton, a software designer who’d worked with the Department of Justice on a program called PROMIS, created to sort out information on criminal court proceedings. Hamilton ended up suing the DOJ, claiming that it had basically gone into business for itself, stealing and selling intellectual property that rightfully belonged to him.
Casolaro’s investigations led him to a nest of miscreants and misfits reminiscent of the Watergate plumbers or the free-Cuba types depicted in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. One of them was Mike Riconosciuto, portrayed here (by an endlessly entertaining Mark Richard) as a sort of street-smart version of Bobby Fischer, existing in a constant state of nerdish exasperation. Riconosciuto, aka Danger Man, apparently got the conspiratorial ball rolling, telling Casolaro that he was one of two Republican operatives sent to Iran to bribe the ayatollahs into holding on to their American hostages until after the 1980 presidential election, so as to deny Jimmy Carter the “October surprise” he needed to beat Reagan. Riconosciuto’s alleged reward for this service was tacit permission to modify and market Hamilton’s PROMIS software. Riconosciuto claimed to have installed a secret “back door” in the program, through which someone—say, the U.S. government—could spy on anyone using it. Of course, he also said he’d built a laser from scratch and worked on ways to weaponize common household appliances.
Another Casolaro contact was Robert Nichols, characterized—both in the play and on websites recounting the Casolaro saga—as an international man of mystery who moved as easily among the Gambinos and yakuza as among FBI agents. Philip Earl Johnson certainly gives him an aura of affable malevolence: little things like eating a hard-boiled egg and applying suntan lotion take on a dark air as performed by Johnson, who was so good last spring in Writers Theatre’s The Dance of Death.
Now that I think about it, Nichols doesn’t offer the show’s Casolaro (Kyle Hatley) anything substantive. His role seems to be to lure the freelancer deeper into the murk, the sense that there are unseen forces at play behind the everyday skullduggery of men like Riconosciuto. And sure enough, into the murk he falls, just like the real Casolaro did. On August 10, 1991, a hotel maid found Casolaro dead in his room at the Sheraton Inn in Martinsburg, West Virginia—where he was supposed to meet some sources—with 11 or 12 deep razor slashes in his arms.
Was Casolaro murdered because he was closing in on something big? Or did he commit suicide because he’d lost his equilibrium to a fantasy? The trouble with Danny Casolaro Died for You is that it wants to answer yes to both questions. On the one hand the script offers us a portrait of a manic enthusiast whose grandiosity gets the better of him, causing him not only to conjure the Octopus but to misrepresent himself variously as a reporter for Time and a colleague of legendary political columnist Jack Anderson. On the other hand, as the title suggests, it tries to tell us he’s right. Much of what Casolaro was looking into turned out to be at least arguably real. The Bank of Credit and Commerce International was in fact a criminal enterprise. Two courts agreed that Hamilton was swindled out of the promise of PROMIS, until a third ruled otherwise. Reagan’s back-channel overtures to the Iranians have a lot of reporting to back them up. But the leap from there to the Octopus? As tempting as some conspiracy theories sound in the age of Edward Snowden, it strains credulity. Journalistic and dramatic.