Was a journalist found dead in a hotel bath tub murdered because he was investigating a highly sensitive political cover-up?
In the summer of 1991, a housekeeper at the Martinsburg, West Virginia, Sheraton hotel opened Room 517 to clean it. Nothing prepared her for what she found inside. Hotel guest Danny Casolaro was lying dead in a tub of bloody water. Danny was an investigative journalist from Fairfax, Virginia, a suburb of Washington D.C.
Martinsburg police arrived on the scene. In the room they found a suicide note and a single razor blade in the bathtub. Danny’s wrists had been slashed twelve times. Eight cuts on his left wrist and four on his right. One cut was so deep it severed a tendon.
Danny’s body was taken to a local funeral home later that afternoon. But strangely, according to journalist Jack Anderson, Danny’s family and friends weren’t told about his death until two days later:
Just a few days before Danny Casolaro died, he told friends he was on the verge of breaking a huge story. Danny claimed to have proof that some U.S. justice department officials were corrupt. Many suspect that Danny’s death was not a suicide. They believe that he was murdered because he knew too much.
Danny’s advocates believe that the true story of Danny’s death began when he interviewed Bill and Nancy Hamilton, owners of a computer software company called INSLAW. They had developed revolutionary software to speed up case management for law enforcement agencies. In 1980, the U.S. Justice Department became a major client. At first, the program was a success. But according to Ray Thornton, something changed:
INSLAW then discovered that the Canadian government was also using their software, even though they hadn’t paid for it. William and Nancy Hamilton told Danny that they were confused by what was happening, until they talked to a man named Michael Riconosciuto. Riconosciuto claimed to have worked for the CIA and knew about the illegal sales of INSLAW’s software:
Then Congress began to hear about the INSLAW scandal. In August 1989, the House Judiciary Committee opened a formal investigation. Michael Riconosciuto began telling his story to committee investigators. Within a week, Justice Department agents arrested Riconosciuto on drug charges.
Michael’s drug conviction hurt his credibility, but another witness with perfect credentials stepped forward. His name was Elliot Richardson. He was Richard Nixon’s Attorney General until he resigned rather than participate in the Watergate cover-up. He was now the lawyer for INSLAW:
Danny Casolaro believed he had uncovered a sprawling criminal network. He said it was made up of U.S. officials, organized crime members, and intelligence agents. He called it “The Octopus.” Journalist John Connolly said he believed Danny got in over his head:
A week before he died, Danny told his brother, Tony, that he had been receiving death threats. Danny arrived in Martinsburg with all of his notes and documents two days before he died. He was scheduled to meet several informants and complete his investigation. He believed one of his new contacts would deliver key evidence about the finances of “The Octopus.” According to Michael Riconosciuto:
The day before he died, Danny met with William Turner, a former employee of a major defense contractor. According to Turner, he gave Danny papers showing the corruption that Danny believed was tied to the Octopus. But within 24 hours, Danny Casolaro was found dead. There was no sign of Turner’s documents or Danny’s research papers. To this day, not one of those papers has been found.
West Virginia authorities opened a formal investigation and ordered an autopsy. That’s when Don’s brother, Anthony Casolaro, said he received some shocking news:
The autopsy confirmed that Danny had bled to death from the razor cuts on his wrists. But, more importantly, according to Anthony Casolaro, it revealed that Danny wasn’t alone in his hotel room during his last moments:
When Casolaro’s hotel room was cleaned by a professional cleaning crew the day after his death, important evidence was destroyed. One of the housekeepers saw two bloody towels in the bathroom minutes after Danny’s body was found. It looked like they were used to wipe blood off the bathroom floor. Journalist John Connolly questioned how the scene was handled by authorities:
Elliot Richardson said he believes the evidence indicates foul play:
Even Danny’s funeral was clouded by mystery. A highly decorated military officer arrived in a limousine near the end of the service. No one at the funeral recognized him.
A short time later, the official investigation of Danny Casolaro’s death was closed. West Virginia authorities and Department of Justice representatives declined to participate in this story.
Many of Danny’s family and friends remain convinced that he did not commit suicide.