In Mexico, schemer goes by 'Black Jack'

Staff WriterSeptember 7, 2010 

North Carolina's own walking parody of U.S. foreign policy is at it again.

This time Mexico is the stage for veteran con man Jonathan Keith "Jack" Idema.

In the 1990s Idema went to prison for 58 counts of wire fraud and conspiracy and collected dozens of lesser charges such as writing worthless checks and assault on a female. Idema sued CBS and Steven Spielberg's studio, claiming a movie starring George Clooney was an unauthorized version of his life story.

Then he hightailed it to Afghanistan, where he reinvented himself for the international media as a sunglasses-wearing, AK-47-toting counterterrorism expert who boasted of shadowy U.S. and Afghan government connections. He peddled things such as body guard services and videotapes of alleged al-Qaida training exercises and was quoted in a host of admiring stories.

Eventually though, he was arrested by Afghan police along with other members of a rag-tag group he called Task Force Saber 7 and charged with running a private jail and torturing innocent Afghans there.

The Afghan government commuted his sentence in 2007 after three years in prison.

Now local media on the Caribbean coast of Mexico is reporting that Idema is barricaded in a turreted house - which he has dubbed Casa Blanca - because police want to question him about allegations that he held a woman against her will and assaulted her, among other accusations.

Headlines in Mexico refer to Idema as Rambo, and one story notes that he now refers to himself as "Black Jack."

Idema didn't return phone calls or e-mail messages seeking comment. Guillermo Torres, an attorney in Mexico who said he is working for Idema, said he couldn't talk about the allegations without Idema's permission.

New Jersey attorney John Edwards Tiffany, who has represented Idema, said he didn't believe there was any truth to the stories about his former client being barricaded.

"This is Jack Idema we're talking about," Tiffany said. "You think something would be going on like that and CNN wouldn't already have a satellite truck there? The major news outlets would be camped out."

Author Robert Young Pelton, who wrote a chapter about Idema in his book "Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror," said Idema gave himself the new nickname Black Jack when he swapped one fantasy for another with the move from Afghanistan to Mexico. He has grown his hair and beard long, raised a pirate flag over the house and begun renting out boats, using images from "Pirates of the Caribbean" in his advertising.

Journalists were fooled

In Afghanistan, some of the world's best journalists were duped by Idema.

"The guy listens and he copies and he duplicates and he fools. He fooled CBS, he fooled National Geographic, he fooled Fox," Pelton said. "You know that guy that wanted to go get bin Laden with a balloon or something and drop something on his head? We want these rogue hero guys to exist. And the thing about Jack, he knows we want him to exist."

Pelton said that Idema had always wanted to be the subject of a movie and that he was trying to make himself a star when he formed Task Force Saber 7.

One of the other Americans in the group, Ed Caraballo, was a freelance videographer who had worked for several TV networks. His job was to film the exploits of the "task force."

The group thought Idema was leading them on a legitimate hunt for Osama bin Laden and other members of al-Qaida, Pelton said.

"He was shooting a reality show, and they thought they were actually hunting terrorists," Pelton said. "...When he does things like stop buses at gunpoint on camera and tells the Afghans to get off and beats them up, he's acting for a TV show, but the guys with him think he's hunting terrorists."

Caraballo, via e-mail, declined to comment.

Life in Afghan prison

Idema somehow persuaded the commander of the Afghan prison, one of the worst in the world, to give him comfy digs with carpet and a satellite phone. He also had Internet access, which he used to proclaim his innocence and strike heroic notes in websites he or his supporters set up with names such as www.SuperPa triots.us , and built a small cult following who believe he was set up by the U.S. government.

The fraud conviction in 1994 was related to a company he formed in Fayetteville to sell military-style gear, among others things. According to North Carolina criminal records, he also was charged with more than three dozen other crimes here, including assault on a female, assault with a deadly weapon, passing worthless checks, assault by pointing a gun and reckless driving.

According to Wake County court records, he is still wanted here for impersonating a law enforcement officer during a 2004 traffic stop, apparently on a visit home shortly before he was arrested in Kabul.

Pelton said that the nickel-and-dime nature of many of Idema's crimes, along with his aggressive response to any challenge with tactics like lawsuits and Internet attacks, has helped keep Idema out of jail over the years. In short, extraditing him or arresting him isn't worth the effort.

The problem is, Pelton said, even though Idema is small-time, he damaged the image of the U.S. in the same way it was harmed by the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Al-Qaida posted an Internet video of him apparently torturing an Afghan.

"To people watching that video overseas, Jack Idema is us," Pelton said. "They assume he is an American torturing Afghans on behalf of us. If he has done one thing, he has become the Ugly American, and not just in a regional way.

"Now he's just this crazy guy with no money down in Mexico," Pelton said. "I can't wait for how he spins this so we can see what's the next iteration of Jack Idema."

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

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