Thursday, August 29, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Worldwide Conspiracy, Or Fantasy? -- Felon's Story Checks Out - Kind Of

Call it the mother of all conspiracy theories.

Let's see, there's Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Casey, plotting dirty tricks together. There's the Ayatollah Khomeini, Ed Meese, Moammar Gadhafi, Ollie North and Saddam Hussein, helping out.

There's Manuel Noriega, Clark Clifford and the notorious Bank of Commerce and Credit International making it easy to do bad, backed by a vast network of drug barons, arms merchants, spies, hit men and international con artists whose evil web reaches every corner of the Earth.

And there's one Michael James Riconosciuto, a native of Tacoma and a convicted illegal drug maker, who claims that his life is in danger because he knows too much.

Riconosciuto, 43, is now in the Pierce County Jail, awaiting trial on new federal drug charges.

And what was this disparate gang of the prominent and predatory supposedly up to? The pirating of a computer-software program.

Is this for real? Bits and pieces of it, maybe, but that's enough to send reporters and government agents scrambling to talk to people, like Riconosciuto, who claim to have information that will make sense of tangled webs of events. Everybody wants answers that tie things up neatly.

The death Aug. 10 in West Virginia of Danny Casolaro, a writer who was investigating all these putative links, stoked the One Big Conspiracy theory.

While medical experts said they couldn't rule out suicide, friends and associates of Casolaro said they believed he was murdered because he got too close to something he called "The Octopus" - a vast international conspiracy involving players from the Iran-contra scandal, the so-called "October surprise," the BCCI fiasco, the allegedly stolen computer program and sundry other malodorous malfeasances.

Ominously, one of Riconosciuto's lawyers, J.M.B. Crawford of Tacoma, says he was interviewed by Casolaro just a few months before Casolaro's death.

Crawford contends at least five other people with knowledge of the One Big Conspiracy have similarly met their maker.

Enter Michael Riconosciuto, offering answers.

Earlier this year, Riconosciuto talked with investigators from the House Judiciary Committee, which is looking into allegations that the U.S. Department of Justice stole a computer program from a private company called INSLAW.

He made a lot of wild charges, says one source familiar with the House committee's work. But, said the source, some of Riconosciuto's story has so far checked out.

INSLAW Corp., which makes a program called PROMIS - for Prosecutors' Management Information System - contends the U.S. Justice Department canceled a $10 million contract to install the PROMIS system in all U.S. attorneys' offices and then swiped the program from INSLAW.

Still later, INSLAW contends, elements of the U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence establishment illegally provided the program to foreign despots like Saddam and Gadhafi - supposedly to enable them to keep track of dissidents.

Some have suggested that the U.S. government had a hidden purpose in providing the software to foreign intelligence agencies: The software, some suggest, may have had secret "back-door" access that would have allowed the U.S. to secretly penetrate the systems.

In any event, when he died, Casolaro was trying to show that the alleged theft of the INSLAW program was related to the "October surprise," the Iran-contra scandal and the collapse of BCCI.

Those are also allegations previously made by Riconosciuto.

On March 21, 1991, Riconosciuto swore an affidavit in a federal civil suit involving INSLAW, contending that an agent of the U.S. Justice Department threatened official reprisals against him and his family if he cooperated with the House Judiciary Committee investigation.

Nine days later, Riconosciuto was arrested by federal drug-enforcement agents and charged with one count of distributing methamphetamine at Lakebay in Pierce County. Riconosciuto says he's being framed. Federal authorities say Riconosciuto lies well and often.

Nevertheless, after his arrest, investigators from the House Intelligence Committee came out to Tacoma to interview Riconosciuto, spending nearly six hours with him and taking a lengthy deposition that was described by one source as "wild and squirrely." Still, one federal source referred to Riconosciuto as a genius.

In his March 21 affidavit in the INSLAW lawsuit, Riconosciuto asserted that in the early 1980s he served as "research director" for something called the Wackenhut-Cabazon Joint Venture.

The venture was formed, Riconosciuto said, to develop "certain materials used in military and national-security operations, including night-vision goggles, machine guns, fuel-air explosives, and biological- and chemical-warfare weapons."

During that time, a former California official named Earl W. Brian gave him a copy of the PROMIS software, Riconosciuto said. Brian had been Ronald Reagan's secretary of health while Reagan was governor of California.

Riconosciuto said he made modifications to the software to make it more useful, particularly for installation in Royal Canadian Mounted Police computers and for the Canadian version of the CIA.

In an affidavit in response to Riconosciuto's claims, Brian denied talking to, meeting or even knowing Michael Riconosciuto. Brian denied knowing anything about the Wackenhut-Cabazon Joint Venture, obtaining copies of the PROMIS software, or that he "spearheaded a plan for the worldwide distribution of PROMIS."

Always, there seems to be a bit of truth in some of what Riconosciuto says, like bait dangling from a hook.

There was a Wackenhut-Cabazon Joint Venture, for example. A spokesman for Wackenhut in Coral Gables, Fla., Pat Cannan, confirmed that the joint venture was in force from 1981 to 1983.

Riconosciuto was involved with the joint venture, Cannan said, although Wackenhut officials don't recall him as "research director."

"We're not sure what he did," Cannan said. "He wasn't an employee of the joint program. He was a kind of a hanger-on. The guy that ran the program recalls him as quite a personality, bright and aggressive, with lots of ideas, some of them off-the-wall. We're not sure exactly where he fit into the picture."

There are also the stories Riconosciuto has told reporters in other parts of the country.

Last May, for example, Riconosciuto told a Washington Post reporter he had helped arrange a $40 million payment to Iranian officials to persuade them to hold on to the U.S. Embassy hostages. That would be the "October surprise" connection. Supporters of the theory say Reagan backers got the Iranians to delay releasing 52 U.S. hostages they held in 1980 until after the November election, to prevent President Jimmy Carter from bringing them home in October and thus boosting his re-electon campaign.

Crawford says he doesn't know what to make of his client's claims. "I feel like I've stepped into the middle of a movie. As a trial lawyer, this whole case doesn't seem to make much sense to me."

Crawford says he is convinced Riconosciuto did work on weapons systems for a variety of U.S. and foreign military services, including the Israeli defense forces. Crawford says Riconosciuto is regarded by many people as a genius in the fields of chemistry, explosives, computers and electronics.

But from that point, matters involving Riconosciuto turn ever more weird:

-- Riconosciuto has claimed to have been involved in arms sales to the Nicaraguan contras.

-- He claims to have invented a breakthrough that would allow a Third World nation to develop an inexpensive nuclear bomb.

-- He claims to have inside information about a cult of satanists, and has enlisted the support of a retired FBI agent who once investigated the unsolved D.B. Cooper hijacking, according to Crawford. A few years ago, Riconosciuto persuaded a Seattle television station to take him aloft in a helicopter so he could point out locations where satanic human sacrifices were supposed to have occurred.

-- Finally, Riconosciuto has claimed contact with forces from outer space, according to several sources familiar with his statements to House committee investigators. He has also claimed the U.S. Marshal's office has hidden a flying saucer in the woods near Tacoma. In an interview with The Times, Riconosciuto denied telling anyone he had seen a UFO. "No, never, come on," he said.

Indeed, Riconosciuto's behavior since his arrest has become stranger and stranger. Last spring, a federal judge ordered Riconosciuto taken to a federal prison hospital in Missouri for a psychiatric evaluation. Prosecutors and defense lawyers are still waiting for the results of the assessment.

Ever since Riconosciuto's arrest last spring, federal law-enforcement authorities have been receiving telephone calls from people all over the country who either want to talk to Riconosciuto or provide information about him. So has the Washington State Patrol, which initiated the current charges against Riconosciuto.

"Our guys are getting calls every day," says one State Patrol drug-enforcement source.

"This guy is supposed to be connected to the CIA, or he's involved in laundering money for Ronald Reagan. Who knows what's going on? I just deal in facts, and the facts are, this guy's a meth cooker and a meth distributor, and he hides money by buying property in other people's names, and he's just basically a crook. That's what I think."

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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