NC man who ran tortuous Afghan jail dies

January 25, 2012 - 5:05 PM

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Jonathan "Jack" Idema, a former Green Beret from North Carolina convicted of running a private jail in Afghanistan where he tortured terrorism suspects, has died. He was 55.

The director-general of police in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, Arturo Olivares Mendiola, said Idema died of AIDS on Saturday. No one has shown up to claim his body from the medical examiner's office, Mendiola said.

Idema had moved to Mexico at some point after being released from prison in Afghanistan in 2007, when he was pardoned by President Hamid Karzai as part of a general amnesty.

A native of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Idema joined the Army in 1975 and was an active duty Special Forces soldier until 1978. He eventually settled in Fayetteville and began a long series of bizarre and sometimes criminal misadventures while pursuing the national spotlight.

Idema was, among other things, a plaintiff in numerous unsuccessful lawsuits, including one against filmmaker Stephen Spielberg, who Idema claimed stole his life story for a movie. He also spent three years in jail in the 1980s after being convicted of a fraud charge.

"He had charisma," Penny Alesi, a former girlfriend, told The Fayetteville Observer. "He was funny. He was smart — oh, my God, smart and well-read, but toxic. Truthfully, he was a sociopath."

Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Idema traveled to Afghanistan, claiming he was close to catching Osama bin Laden. His claims led to his being featured in several books and television programs.

In 2004, he returned to the country along with another former Fayetteville soldier and a freelance videographer. They ran a private jail in which terrorism suspects were tortured for information. Although convicted of the offenses, Idema denied them in a 2004 interview with The Associated Press.

"Nobody was hung upside down. Nobody was burned with cigarette butts ... nobody was beaten, nobody was tortured, nobody had boiling water poured on them," he said. "Did we interrogate people? Absolutely. Did we keep them up with sleep deprivation? Absolutely."

The two other Americans were released from prison before Idema. He claimed that his operation was conceived with the knowledge and support of American and Afghan military authorities, which they denied, saying any connection was entirely in his imagination.