All Loren Wille wanted to do in the Republic of Georgia was help build housing for refugees.
Instead, the 54-year-old Catholic Relief Services worker became a pawn in a diplomatic chess match, detained for five months and threatened with a long prison term for being behind the wheel in a fatal traffic accident. He was charged with vehicular manslaughter after his car skidded off the road in a driving rainstorm, killing a woman passenger, an old friend who was assisting him as a translator.
After his release last Christmas Day, Wille returned to the United States and spent some time with his family in Iowa. But soon, he said during a recent interview in Baltimore, he's heading back to work in Armenia.
Wille, who stopped here to visit Catholic Relief Services headquarters on West Fayette Street, says his plight shows the tenuous and even dangerous situations humanitarian workers face.
"Humanitarian workers should be allowed to do their jobs and given a certain amount of freedom to do their jobs," the soft-spoken Wille says. "I went there to do a good job, to assist the people of Georgia. I lost a good friend, and I lost five months of my life not being able to do my job, doing what I came to do."
Wille was managing the Catholic Relief Services program, supervising the building of houses for internally displaced people in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory claimed by Armenia and Azerbaijan, when an opportunity arose to start a similar program in Georgia. Wille had worked in Georgia for three years in the mid-1990s while he was with the International Rescue Committee, another relief organization, so he volunteered to do an assessment for Catholic Relief Services in July.
In need of a translator, he immediately thought of his friend, Manana Tsomashvili, whom he had met during his days in Georgia.
"I knew she spoke English well," Wille says. "She had lost her son in a stabbing assault recently. ... I wanted to give her something meaningful to do."
After the 10-day assessment in West Georgia, Wille started the long drive back to the capital, Tbilisi. He began the trek about 2 p.m. on July 21 with Tsomashvili and another aid worker, Dali Kharchilava, in a driving rainstorm.
"I always tell my staff to put on seat belts," Wille says. "Being an American, you're used to it. It's also a company policy."
He recalls that Tsomashvili good-naturedly complained.
"She said, 'Only Americans put on seat belts. Why do I have to?' "
Although Wille made sure all seat belts were fastened before he started the car, Tsomashvili apparently unfastened hers at some point along the trip, which included a couple of stops.
Wille recalls being aware of the many police checkpoints along the route. "I checked my speed a number of times, and I wasn't going over 50 kilometers per hour [about 30 mph]," he says.
About 7: 30 p.m., he drove around a curve and felt the tires start sliding to the right. He tried to correct the skid.
"The next thing I saw was trees coming at me," he recalls. "The next thing I remembered was waking up."
Tsomashvili had been thrown from the car and was dead. Wille and the other aid worker were driven to a hospital in nearby Khashuri by a passer-by. Several hours later, a local police investigator arrived and began to interrogate the groggy Wille.
"He asked me if I'd been drinking. I said no. He asked me if I'd been speeding. I said no," Wille says.
Wille, who was diagnosed with a broken collarbone, broken ribs and a detached lung, was taken early the next morning to a hospital in Tbilisi to recover. But soon after he was released from the hospital, he was summoned back to Khashuri by the investigator to make a statement.
When he arrived, he was charged with vehicular manslaughter, which carries a sentence of 3 to 10 years.
"I felt I'd done nothing wrong. ... It was a tragic accident," he says. "When they told me they were going to charge me I was quite shocked."
After about a week, Wille returned to Tbilisi, and spent the rest of his time in a hospital there, "both for safety reasons and medical reasons." He was concerned the police might put him in prison.
There was wide speculation that Wille's arrest was payback for the case of Georgy Makharadze, a Georgian diplomat who was convicted of manslaughter after he killed a young woman in Washington on New Year's Eve in 1997 while driving drunk. The Georgian government waived diplomatic immunity, and Makharadze is serving a prison term in North Carolina.
Wille refers to it as the "Makharadze factor."
"Of course the [U.S.] Embassy doesn't admit it, nor does the Georgian government," he says. "But to the average person on the street, it was a factor, particularly the people in the Ministry of the Interior."
Initially, Wille says, officials at the U.S. Embassy were not very responsive.
"They didn't want to force [Georgian president Eduard] Shevardnadze to release me and complicate his situation there. They wanted to show an American could be tried under the system and given equal protection," Wille says. "It wasn't equal justice because very seldom are Georgians tried in a case like this. ... They either pay someone off, go out of the country or disappear somewhere."
He also became an issue in the October Parliamentary elections, in which he was referred to as "the Drunk American Driver" or the "Speeding American," he says.
Catholic Relief Services hired lawyers to press for Wille's release, while at the same time lobbying members of Congress and the Clinton administration to advocate on his behalf. A worldwide campaign, led by Wille's sister-in-law, Meg Wille, called for his release. Shevardnadze received messages from Pope John Paul II, Secretary of State Madeline Albright and Secretary of Defense William Cohen.
Wille described his mood as "up and down," corresponding with the ups and downs of his case. Several times it seemed a resolution was near, only to have another setback occur. He thought he might be released in late December, but then the accident investigation was extended until Jan. 21. It looked like he would be detained for the holidays.
On Christmas Day, a desultory-sounding Catholic Relief Services staffer called and said some people were coming to see him.
"I thought, 'Here we're going to go back and talk with the lawyers. Here's some more bad news,' " he says. "But they came up the stairs with champagne in their arms and smiles on their faces. I knew it was over."
The outside pressure, it seems, had finally worked.
Some good came from his ordeal, Wille says. First, the government repaved the road where the accident occurred. There had been three subsequent accidents at that spot, with 16 fatalities.
Also, Wille says his case set a precedent in the Georgian court system. "The prosecutors gave up because of a lack of evidence," he says. "Usually, they don't need evidence. They just convict."
Finally, he says, people were inspired by his case to get involved in a cause. "This is a good case where participation and involvement can show some good results," he says.
After everything he went through, Wille says he harbors no ill will. "I don't hold any grudges or hold any bad feelings against the Georgian government," he says.
And he's eager to get back to work.
"I've been to many hot spots in the world, and I've always been lucky," he says. "But this time I became more involved than I wanted to be."