Current Issue

Patsy’s Story

Alumna Patsy Spier has turned tragedy into triumph. Photo: Marc Piscotty

Given the violence she’s experienced, it’s startling that Patsy Spier still smiles.

In August 2002 in Papua, Indonesia, the DU alumna was gunned down along with her husband of 20 years and a group of friends. The group — teachers at the American school at the U.S.-run Freeport-McMoRan mine, along with a 6-year-old girl — was ambushed heading home on the mine road following an impromptu picnic.

For 35 minutes, an injured Spier lay pinned under the body of a friend while gunmen fired 132 single-caliber rounds into the teachers’ SUVs. Her husband, Rick, had been killed instantly. Two others died and eight were seriously injured, including Spier, who was shot twice and riddled with some 70 pieces of shrapnel. Three Indonesian subcontractors also were ambushed and shot on the mountain road that day.

Over the next four years, Spier undertook a quest for justice that eventually overcame investigative obstruction, amended U.S. military funding policy, improved the Indonesian judicial system and strengthened U.S.-Indonesian relations. And, she watched the men responsible for her husband’s death be fairly tried and convicted.

Searching for justice

Following the Timika Ambush, Spier wondered if she would ever walk again. But as she recuperated in a Townsville, Australia, hospital, she vowed she would recover and bring those responsible for the ambush to justice.

Spier says her resolve wasn’t about revenge, anger or even her devastating personal loss.

The best way to honor her husband’s memory and their lifelong commitment to teaching in Indonesia, Peru, Sudan and Brazil, she says, was to make sure the same thing never happened again.

“If something like that happens again because of my inaction, that is just unacceptable to me,” Spier recalls thinking. “What happened to us shouldn’t happen to anyone. You have to hold people accountable to their actions. Otherwise it just escalates.

“The Papuans would always say how ashamed they were that teachers had been killed,” she remembers. “We all wanted to find out who was responsible.”

Just two months after the ambush, the Indonesian police reported that the Indonesian military was suspected in the shooting. Per Indonesian law, police cannot investigate military affairs. So, the military took over the investigation and a month later exonerated itself. Spier thought the case was stalled.

Meanwhile, because the U.S. Department of Justice considered the ambush an act of terrorism, the FBI had begun investigating the case.

“I knew the FBI wanted to go back, but they weren’t being allowed to by the Indonesian government,” Spier says. U.S. investigators would need an official invitation to return.

To complicate matters, the ambush had happened during a time when the United States was trying to strengthen its relationship with Indonesia — the world’s largest majority-Muslim country — by granting it $400,000 in International Military Education and Training (IMET) funding.

“Why would my own country want to reestablish military funding with Indonesia when its own police force said its military might be guilty of a terrorist act?” Spier wondered. “It was only $400,000, and therefore, seemed totally symbolic.

“Eventually, I got the big picture: There was a big dam full of millions in military funding, and the IMET was like the cork in the dam holding it all back.”

Reaching out

Just two days after returning to the U.S., Spier started making calls. She first called the office of Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, which referred her to Frank Januzzi, East Asia adviser for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Januzzi recognized the obstacles in Indonesia that stood in the way of a fair investigation. “But my thought was: What can I do to make sure that the U.S. government does everything it can do, and that I do everything in my power to help her?” he recalls.

Januzzi directed Spier to Tim Rieser, foreign policy aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy. Rieser, in turn, referred her to Matt Daley, deputy assistant secretary to the State Department’s East Asia and Pacific bureau.

Spier says each man listened intently and then referred her to another who might also help.

“I got all of these guys on the first call and later found out that these are three very influential men when it comes to Indonesia,” Spier says.

In January 2003, Spier made the first of many trips to Washington, D.C.

“I wrote a lot of letters and set up meetings with whoever people suggested,” she explains. Rather than focusing on the emotional and personal impacts of the ambush, she decided to stick to the facts and persuade the United States to hold up the IMET funding until Indonesia cooperated with the FBI investigation.

“Patsy always came into each meeting with a sense of respect and with the expectation that it would just be very natural that they would want to do everything in their power to help her,” Januzzi says. “She didn’t come in with a cynical attitude. She came in with a generous spirit and great patience.”

In early 2003, an amendment introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold to halt the IMET funds lost in the Senate; the funds were certified, but not released.

However, Indonesia was watching, and two days later FBI agents were invited back into the country to investigate. The military insisted the agents interview witnesses with military personnel present and, upon return, the agents characterized the country’s cooperation as obstructive.

Using thousands of frequent flyer miles accumulated during her and Rick’s international teaching careers, Spier continued to shuttle between Colorado and Washington to do what she defined as her job — to educate congressmen on both sides of the aisle about the case and convince them not to transfer the IMET funds. Her passion was contagious, and her honest approach won favor from everyone she met.

“No door was ever closed to me,” Spier says.

“The most extraordinary thing Pasty did was to weave together a network of people with an interest in the case, introducing each of the officials she met to the other people who had an interest,” Januzzi says. “In my opinion, that is an instinct of networking that only the highest-paid consultants and lobbyists in Washington possess.”

Spier also frequented the Indonesian Embassy. “I never looked at what happened to us as an Indonesia versus U.S. thing,” she says, noting the warm reception she always received from the embassy.

Spier even met twice with Indonesia’s first democratically elected president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who assured her there would be action taken against the men who were responsible.

“He knew the importance that the ambush had in our bilateral relations,” Spier says.

Spier’s e-mailing and faxing and meeting and talking and calling worked.

In October 2003, Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard teamed up with Feingold to draft two separate legislative amendments to permanently halt IMET funding until the “Indonesian government and armed forces” were willing to fully cooperate. They had wanted to make sure at least one would pass. Both did, with no opposition.

“All I did was go and talk to all the departments,” Spier says. “I was just the hub of the wheel — all I did was keep the information moving. We all worked together.”

Making headway

One man responsible for the ambush had been indicted in June 2004 after the FBI returned to Indonesia. But, the gunmen were still at large.

Although Spier already had a master’s degree in education, she enrolled in DU’s Graduate School of International Studies to pursue a master’s in global studies with an emphasis on global health. In a professional communication course, Spier polished a five-minute persuasive speech imploring the Papuans to turn over the shooters. She told Washington officials she wanted to return to Papua to make a personal appeal.

“I was going to Papua because I couldn’t ask my government to do anything else, and the only thing I could do was plead my case with the Papuans to turn in the men,” Spier says.

A dozen men were arrested in January 2006, including the ringleader, Antonius Wamang.

“It was just a team effort,” Spier says. “This is what democracy is all about.”

With help from a Department of Justice fund for victims, Spier was present in Jakarta for the entire four-month trial.

The case marked the first time in Indonesia that an outside investigating agency (the FBI in this instance) was allowed to testify in a court proceeding and the first time videotaped evidence was admissible in court.

“The motivation of the shooters, according to the court documents, was to kill Indonesian soldiers who they thought were in the vehicles we were in,” Spier says.

The defendants were members of a separatist group — the Free Papua Movement — that was seeking revenge on the Indonesian military. Wamang, the commanding officer in the attack, received a life sentence for his role; six others received prison terms between 18 months and seven years for their involvement.

Others who participated in the ambush are still at large, Spier says, and the case remains open in the U.S.

Going on

Spier has left more than a few marks in Washington and Indonesia.

“Patsy wasn’t really bringing a problem to Washington. She was bringing an opportunity — a chance to make a difference in U.S. relations with the Indonesian military and a chance to advance the process of reform in Indonesia,” Januzzi says.

Sudjadnan Parnohadiningrat, Indonesia’s current ambassador to the U.S., has described the Timika case as a catalyst to improve the country’s “weak and corrupt judicial system.”

In February, the ambassador joined Spier in a visit to Denver and DU. In a subsequent press release, the Indonesian embassy said the Timika case was “an example of the steps Indonesia has taken and continues to take toward democratization and reform.”

Thanks to the amiable relationships Spier help foster between the two countries, the FBI is now assisting the Indonesian government with the investigation of the 2004 death of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib.

“It was a win-win for both of our countries,” Spier says.

In April 2007, the Justice Department honored Spier with its Special Courage Award for “extraordinary bravery in the aftermath of a crime.” The FBI recognized her with its Strength of Human Spirit Award — created especially for her.

“The strength of spirit Patsy demonstrated after the murders of her husband and friends, and her own injuries, was a constant source of inspiration to our special agents,” FBI Director Robert Mueller said at the awards ceremony.

In June, Spier received her DU master’s degree. She says she wants to work in Washington and would like to “work in some capacity with Indonesia.”

So, in the five years since the ambush, what has Spier learned?

“People cannot help you unless you ask,” she says. “People will help you if you tell them what you need.

“Whatever issue you have — whether it’s with your school or homeowners’ board or local government — go about it with determination, without anger and with your facts straight,” Spier adds. “Never embellish, because if you do you lose your credibility. And, if it’s important, never have a time line.”

“In my 10 years on Capitol Hill, I’ve never seen anyone help the U.S. government be more effective than Patsy during this case,” Januzzi says. “It is really extraordinary to me the way she was able to mobilize the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Justice Department, the State Department, the office of the U.S. president, the office of the Indonesian president and even NGOs and to weave them together in a way that resulted ultimately in justice for her and her family.”

“It never entered my mind not to do all of this,” Spier admits. “I don’t want any regrets. When I woke up from surgery in Townsville, I remember thinking, ‘Am I ever going to laugh again? And, yes, I do laugh, and no, I don’t have any regrets.”

Comments are closed.