American survivors tell the inside story of the fatal explosion that killed a US military contractor with two children. The blunders that led up to his death expose deep problems in farming out much of America’s Syria strategy to private companies. Now, the feds are investigating.
When the Bulgarian nurses jostled Mike Dougherty onto the hospital bed, he noticed that the sheets were red and damp with someone else’s blood.
The American lay in a hospital in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, disoriented and in pain, hoping he wouldn’t die or lose his foot. A Bulgarian doctor had hurriedly bandaged his shredded hands, peppered with shrapnel, and sutured the gash on his bleeding foot. At the open window, pigeons clustered on the sill, cooing.
Suddenly, a Bulgarian plainclothes intelligence officer arrived with an English interpreter and ordered the medical staff to leave the hospital room.
What were you doing handling weapons in our country? was the gruff question.
Dougherty immediately understood this was Bulgaria’s version of the KGB and that he could be facing years in a Bulgarian prison if he didn’t cough up the right answers.
Who gave you authorization to be in our country and fire military weapons?
As he lay there getting grilled, he realized he didn’t actually know the answers. While he had served in the US Army for 23 years, now he was a just private contractor, one of the legions of former soldiers who perform jobs once carried out by the US military. He’d been hired for this contract less than a month before.
What he knew was this: He was part of America’s covert, high-stakes effort to get weapons and training for Syrian rebels and sway one of the bloodiest wars in the world, a six-year conflict that has killed an estimated 450,000 people, forced more than 4.5 million people to flee as refugees, and sparked an anti-immigrant backlash across Europe and even in the United States. Dougherty knew his mission involved the secretive Special Operations Command, known as SOCOM (pronounced “SOH-com”), which oversees elite forces that run covert operations around the world. But he had never talked to any US government official about this job.
So all the wounded man could think of was how to avoid more questions. Dougherty moaned, letting the pain take over so he could fool the intelligence officer into thinking he was so delirious that he couldn’t answer.
“I had no idea if I was going to be letting the government down,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I had thought everything was approved, but I had no idea.”
The operation that Dougherty was protecting from disclosure that afternoon in the grimy Bulgarian hospital was connected to one of the most important — but worst executed — US foreign policy initiatives of the time, Obama’s hapless effort to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to battle ISIS. By the end of it, just a handful of fighters were actually trained, and they lost most of their US-funded equipment to al-Qaeda.
The episode in Bulgaria was a small part of America’s overall Syrian mission, but it pulls back the curtain on that failure, exposing how the Pentagon entrusted part of America’s crucial Syrian operation not to seasoned and skilled operators but to a tiny and inexperienced company named Purple Shovel.
Outside the military’s rigorous and time-honored chain of command, overseeing contractors and subcontractors can be difficult — and when Americans die, sifting out whom to hold accountable can be all but impossible.
In this case, as BuzzFeed News has previously reported, SOCOM granted two contracts in 2014 worth over $50 million to Purple Shovel, a virtually unknown player in the arms business, to provide weapons and equipment for Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. The company was also supposed to train American commandos how to use the weapons it provided, so that they, in turn, could train the Syrian rebels.
Purple Shovel was the “prime contractor,” meaning it signed the deals directly with SOCOM. But Purple Shovel farmed out crucial work to two other American companies, according to sources, government records, and court documents. SkyBridge Tactical was to provide a few highly skilled trainers who could teach American special operations soldiers how to handle Russian-designed weapons being sent to Syrian rebels. And Regulus Global, a Virginia firm, was to help Purple Shovel obtain powerful weapons for the rebels.
Regulus was led by a CEO who was found by state securities regulators to have committed “fraud or deceit” against an investor, and by a president who was prosecuted on federal bribery charges that were dismissed after his trial ended in a hung jury. Regulus, in turn, outsourced work to a Bulgarian arms company, Alguns, whose top executive, documents show, had links to a notorious organized crime figure known as the Baron.
The contracts were beset by snafus. But by far the most serious problem was the grenade explosion that put Dougherty in the Bulgarian hospital. The cause of the blast is still unclear. That explosion also wounded a colleague, retired Green Beret Jerry Parker, and killed another, Navy veteran Francis Norwillo, the jovial father of two young children.
SOCOM, for its part, insists that while it may have hired Purple Shovel, the explosion had nothing to do with any contracts it issued. The contractors say they were doing SOCOM’s work and deny responsibility for the fatal blast. But in a lawsuit against Purple Shovel, SkyBridge, and Regulus, Dougherty and Norwillo’s widow argue that all three companies are at fault.
Now there is a federal investigation. Four sources, three of whom were involved in the contract, told BuzzFeed News that the Department of Defense Inspector General is examining how and why officials at SOCOM gave Purple Shovel its contracts. They are also investigating whether the contractors and subcontractors complied with the law as they bought weapons for the secret program, the sources said, and they are trying to figure out what caused the fatal blast.
While the broad outlines of the botched contract have been sketched out, what happened on that deadly day — and the blunders that led up to it — has never been fully revealed. Now, based on court documents, other records, and exclusive interviews, that tale can be told.
No Body Armor
Dougherty was home in Tennessee when he got the call in mid-May 2015 from SkyBridge. He’d never heard of the firm but was told it was working on a government contract. Was he available, immediately, for a short-time gig, 78 days or so? The pay, he was told, was over $600 a day.
When SkyBridge called Parker, the retired Green Beret, he had just left the Special Forces 3rd Group, and he and his fiancé had a new baby daughter named Rebel Rose. “The $1,800-a-month retirement was not going to pay the bills,” he recalled. “I told my old lady, ‘It sucks, but here’s a job.’”
Norwillo, too, had recently left a job as a civilian contractor in Afghanistan and was having a hard time landing new work stateside. The money SkyBridge was offering was too good to turn down, and he told his wife, Ziecha, he was excited about it. Still, she told him she was nervous about the assignment. “I thought he wouldn’t return. I had a weird feeling,” she said. “On the way to the airport, I told him, ‘What happens if you don’t come back?’ I asked him not to take his wedding ring.”
One thing that bothered the men, according to Dougherty and Parker, was that they didn’t get the protective gear they would have had if they were training on a US military range.
“My biggest concern,” said Parker, “was body armor and helmet.” He said in all his military experience, even among the battle-hardened professionals of the Special Forces, everyone complied with the stringent protective requirements for weapons training: “You need to be wearing body armor, long shirt, and helmet, and eye and ear protection when you are firing weapons.”
So he said he’d pushed SkyBridge repeatedly to get body armor and protective gear. “They said no. I brought it up numerous times.”
SkyBridge did not respond to requests for comment, and the company’s lawyer declined to comment.
A mere week after they had been called, all three men were on a plane together, jetting to Sofia, Bulgaria. “The whole thing was put together fast and in a hurry,” Parker said. “I did not have a warm and fuzzy about the mission.”
“They rushed everything,” said Dougherty. He said they didn’t get the medical clearance that the contract required or the routine training given to overseas contractors.
In Bulgaria, they soon met up with Alexander Dimitrov. His company, Alguns, would be supplying them with the weapons and facilities for training, which would take place at a range run by a huge state-owned Bulgarian arms company. He drove a sharp-looking black Maserati, and he had a black Land Rover, too. Dimitrov did not respond to requests for comment, but he had previously told BuzzFeed News that he did not provide the grenades and that he was not responsible for anything that went wrong.
Dimitrov has a connection to one of Bulgaria’s major mafia figures, Boyan Petrakiev Borisov, nicknamed the Baron, whose criminal record dates back to at least 1977, according to Bulgarian law enforcement records. Dimitrov denied any connection to the mob, but for years, Bulgarian incorporation documents show, the two men owned a company together. But Dougherty and the other two Americans knew nothing about this.
At least, not at first.
Dougherty said friendly hotel clerks told him that Dimitrov had a reputation for being close to organized crime. “People at the hotel,” Dougherty said, “referenced the Russian mob.”
“No Loose Lips” — Secret Trip to Belarus
But though things had been rushed, Dougherty said, when they arrived in Bulgaria there were no weapons to train on, so they just cooled their heels and gathered information on the internet about the weapons they were supposed to learn how to use. “We were stuck in no-man’s-land,” he said.
One of the types of weapons that SOCOM wanted for the rebels was the wire-guided Konkurs anti-tank missile. A Russian-designed weapon, it was already a mainstay of the war in Syria, appearing in YouTube videos that have chronicled the arms used by all sides.
But guided anti-tank missiles have been hard to come by in recent years — the wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere have depleted the stockpiles. So Purple Shovel and Regulus, in a bizarre move for a US deal, were buying the Konkurs from the sanctioned nation of Belarus, which had been under European Union arms embargo and is often called “Europe’s last dictatorship.” It’s considered a rogue state, dealing with Syria, Iran, and North Korea. BuzzFeed News has previously revealed that SOCOM was aware the missiles were being bought from Belarus.
What hasn’t been reported is that Dougherty, Norwillo, and Parker made a secret trip to Belarus for training.
According to court filings and the accounts of Dougherty and Parker, the men got an email while they were in Bulgaria. The email was written by William Somerindyke, the CEO of Regulus Global, the one regulators in Virginia had found had committed a dozen securities violations, including “fraud or deceit” against an investor. The Americans, he said in the email, would be sent to Belarus for part of their training.
“I had to pull a ninja move to get all this training coordinated,” he wrote. “There are a lot of favors,” he added, “that will need to be owed.” Company officials from both Purple Shovel and SkyBridge were cc’d on the email.
He pushed for extreme secrecy. “I need no loose lips,” he wrote. “It is VERY VERY important the 3 guys do not mention to anyone Tuesday through Friday in Bulgaria that they were in Belarus.”
Dougherty, Parker, and Norwillo flew through Vienna to Minsk. At the airport, a sullen official demanded “fees” of $200 in cash for each of the new visas, Dougherty recalls. The next morning, a car took them to a nondescript warehouse on the outskirts of town. There, a Belorussian man who spoke English briefed them on the Konkurs and showed them a simulator of the missile, guiding them on how to load and fire it.
Their second night in Minsk, Dougherty recalled, a Belorussian businessman who seemed to be in charge treated them to a lavish dinner. When they arrived at the restaurant, customers who were already seated at a large table on a patio were ignominiously ordered to move and sit at different tables so the Americans and their host could drink shots of vodka, toast each other’s countries, and feast on plate after plate of food.
Dougherty began to think their Belorussian host was using the occasion to pump them for information about the arms contracts, he recalled, so he stopped downing vodka shots. “I certainly wasn’t going to allow myself to be drawn into a compromising situation,” he said.
Dougherty said he never knew that Belarus was a sanctioned nation where US arms dealers were usually not allowed to buy weapons.
Earlier this month, SOCOM told BuzzFeed News that it didn’t sign off on the trip. “If the subcontractor sent three people to Belarus for training,” SOCOM spokesperson Kenneth McGraw said in an email, “we did not and would not know that.”
This week, though, McGraw said, “Someone may have been told SkyBridge Tactical sent employees to Belarus for training.”
While SkyBridge declined to comment, Purple Shovel, which hired SkyBridge, said through its lawyer that “PS maintained close and constant coordination with USSOCOM on all facets of our contract,” including the training.
“A Kind of White”
The men got back to Bulgaria from their Belarus trip on June 2, Dougherty recalled. They checked into a new hotel near one of the country’s biggest arms manufacturing companies. Dougherty said that Dimitrov, the Bulgarian arms dealer with the organized crime ties, provided them with a driver, who on June 6 took them to the weapons range.
There, they practiced firing the huge SPG-9 rocket launcher, the rapid-firing AGS-17 grenade launcher, and the RPG-7, another grenade launcher familiar to anyone who has watched war movies or seen footage from Syria or Afghanistan. Dougherty says many of the munitions were visibly corroded, and they set those aside.
The wind gusts from the northwest were fierce on the expansive plains in central Bulgaria that day, buffeting the trees on the side of the military range. The ridged mountains a few kilometers away framed the rusted hulks of armored personnel carriers and trucks used for target practice.
Dougherty, the senior man in the team, took video from the side, holding his cell phone camera steady as Navy veteran Norwillo, a tall man who towered over the others, carried an anti-personnel rocket-propelled grenade, a long cylinder shaped like a giant pencil, and loaded it into the grenade launcher that Parker held on his shoulder.
Having trained for days, Dougherty knew what would happen now: Norwillo would slide the grenade rocket all the way into the tube, where it would click into place, and then walk off to the side so he’d be clear of the line of fire. Parker would make sure everyone was clear from the backblast that would come from the rear of the weapon, and then he would pull the trigger. The rocket-propelled grenade would launch with a blast, soar away, and explode in the distance.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, the warhead exploded while it was in the launcher, before it even clicked into place.
Dougherty said suddenly there was just “a kind of white” before his senses came back.
He was slammed against a concrete wall by the force of the blast, and then the air pressure sucked him violently the other way against the ground. He looked down and saw that he was covered in blood. He didn’t know it then, but his blood was mixed with the blood and brains of Norwillo, who was killed instantly. Dougherty saw Parker staring at his missing hand and shouting, “My hand!”
Dougherty started crawling, instinctively, to the small whitewashed concrete shed that functioned as a protective bunker. There, he said, he saw a young Bulgarian man in uniform who looked at him, then turned and walked away. So Dougherty pulled his belt free with his injured hands, and tied it around the shredded remnant of his tan cargo pants to form a tourniquet.
Someone put him in a small car, he said, which drove him to the hospital.
It’s a mystery why the rocket grenade, built with numerous safeties, blew up, killing Norwillo.
The grenade was manufactured in 1984, making it more than 30 years old when it exploded, according to the lawsuit filed last year by Dougherty and Norwillo’s widow in state court in Florida. The grenade’s age, the suit contends, rendered “its shelf life expired from degraded and now defective components.” Indeed, the lawsuit claims that the US government itself “had rejected the use of these same grenades because the grenades were defective, unstable, and dangerous.”
“I want answers,” Ziecha Norwillo, wife of the dead contractor, told BuzzFeed News, “and I want to hold people accountable.”
So far, no one is admitting responsibility.
Purple Shovel, the prime contractor, said in court filings that Dougherty and Norwillo caused the accident by their own negligence. The company did not explain how.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, the company’s lawyer said that “Purple Shovel personnel were not present” and that Regulus Global and its subcontractors were solely responsible for selecting the range and providing the munitions. He added that SkyBridge “approved their employees to participate.”
Regulus asked a judge to dismiss the case, arguing that the plaintiffs had failed to put forth any facts in support of their claims. A lawyer for the company said she wasn’t able to comment.
SkyBridge, which declined comment, has not addressed the substance of the allegations but has argued in court that it was acting according to its contract: “At all times, Skybridge Tactical was under the direct and detailed control of federal officers.” In March, a federal judge in Florida agreed, writing that the actions of SkyBridge in Bulgaria “were performed pursuant to a military contract and under the direction and control of military officers.”
Despite that ruling, SOCOM has refused any responsibility, maintaining that it had not commissioned training on the type of weapon that exploded. SOCOM spokesperson McGraw said in an email to BuzzFeed News that “neither the weapon that killed Mr. Norwillo nor training for that weapon were part of the USSOCOM contract. When Mr. Norwillo was unfortunately killed, the activities in which he was involved were not part of or related to a USSOCOM contract.”
He added: “Since your questions and story are based on your incorrect assertion that this incident is tied to a USSOCOM contract is wrong, your questions are not valid for USSOCOM.”
Of course, the best way to determine how Norwillo died would be a full investigation.
The Bulgarian government, according to three sources, has completed one, but it has not been released. As for the US government, at first it did not investigate the blast, potentially losing crucial clues as time passed. Later, the US Government Accountability Office examined the incident, but its 2016 report is classified “secret,” according to the GAO’s Charles Michael Johnson Jr.
Little is known about the Department of Defense Inspector General’s investigation, which has not been previously disclosed. The IG’s office said it does not confirm or deny ongoing investigations.
The day of the explosion, after Dougherty was able to trick the Bulgarian interrogator into thinking that he was in too much pain to answer any questions, a woman in a hospital coat yelled at him as he lay there, he said. Then she threw a biscuit at him. He managed to catch it with his bandaged hands. It was the first thing he ate after the grenade explosion.
The next day, the US ambassador arrived at the hospital. A day later, the US Air Force sent a special C-130 plane fully equipped with a medical team. They pulled Dougherty and Parker out of the hospital and flew them out of Bulgaria.
Over lunch at a restaurant overlooking the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year, Dougherty shook his head and explained that he didn’t go to Norwillo’s funeral because he was too shaken. He said he’s had about 10 operations, mostly at the Walter Reed military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. He himself is puzzled, even confounded, that after more than two decades in the Army, and multiple combat tours, it’s what he experienced as a civilian contractor that has most deeply scarred him, emotionally and physically. “I’ve seen a lot of death,” he said, “and I’ve been in a lot of gunfights. And nothing ever got me like this.” ●