Christopher Goffard’s dive into a true story of murder, madness, and Kenyan politics began four years ago when he stumbled across a wire service brief buried in the Los Angeles Times, where he is a staff writer.
The headline read, “Priest’s Death Ruled Homicide,” and Goffard wondered how John Kaiser, an American Catholic priest, managed to get himself murdered in the heart of Africa.
Finding the answer turned into You Will See Fire: A Search for Justice in Kenya (Norton), Goffard’s second book after his crime novel, Snitch Jacket (Overlook/Rookery, 2007). Goffard, 39, began calling the priest’s relatives and friends who were priests, in religious orders, or tied in some way to the Catholic Church, asking about him. A portrait quickly emerged of a hard-driving man who had grown up in rural Minnesota, embraced old school Catholicism, was good with a gun, had an ambiguous history of mental illness, and had a zealous drive to pursue justice for the victims of Kenya’s repressive regime under Daniel Arap Moi.
“I got onto the story about a missionary priest who risked everything and wound up dead under mysterious circumstances, and I convinced the paper to send me to Kenya,” Goffard says. “He was an icon in Kenya, but largely unknown in the United States. But he did a very brave thing, and I thought it was a story worth telling.”
Goffard’s reporting on Kaiser’s death led to a three-part series in the newspaper in February 2009, but he says, “I had boxes of material. The story was screaming for a book-length treatment.”
The story of Kaiser’s death includes the story of Charles Mbuthi Gathenji, a Kenyan civil rights lawyer whose own father had been the victim of a political murder, and who made the search for truth in Kaiser’s death a personal mission.
Kaiser was first assigned to Kenya in 1964, shortly after it gained independence, by his Mill Hill Missionaries order, based in England. After Daniel Arap Moi became president in 1978 and turned Kenya into a personal fiefdom, Kaiser became a thorn in the regime’s side. He collected affidavits from victims and witnesses of rape and brutality, and pressed their complaints, picking up threats and enemies along the way.
When Kaiser was found dead on August 23, 2000, ostensibly killed with his own shotgun, the death was alternatively attributed to suicide or murder. That uncertainty is what propels Goffard’s book, including an examination by the FBI that seems likely to have been subverted by politics. Kenya was working with the United States government in bringing to justice the terrorists behind the 1998 truck bombings at three U.S. embassies and consulates in Kenya.
When the Moi regime ended in 2002 with the presidential election of Mwai Kibaki, Ga-thenji resurrected the case, pushing for a new investigation, which led to the finding in the wire-service report Goffard had read.
Some of the confusion over Kaiser’s death arose from Kaiser himself. He had been treated for manic depression earlier in his life, fueling the FBI’s opinion that he had killed himself. Yet Kaiser’s friends rejected that opinion, in part because Kaiser’s deep embrace of conservative Catholicism condemned suicide.
“There were phrases he used that suggested he was very close to death, and he knew it,” Goffard says. “His defenders say he was aware he was going to be killed. He was beset by threats. A rock came through his window. He received the note, ‘You will see fire.’ ”
In the end, Goffard draws no conclusions, though the evidence he stacks up makes it pretty clear Kaiser didn’t shoot himself in the back of the head with his own shotgun.
It is, Goffard says, a story about a priest, a death, and a quest for justice. And a lawyer whose “mission in some ways parallels the priest’s,” and who wouldn’t give up.
“They share some qualities—they both are extremely dogged,” Goffard says. “The lawyer is the one who unpeels the mystery. His life story is deeply affected by the politics of the times, and that is exactly what Kaiser was addressing. They’re intertwined.”
Scott Martelle is the author of The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial (Rutgers, 2011).