In the Spotlight

News & Features
Who Killed 'Father Johnny'
By Marisa Helms, Minnesota Public Radio
April 19, 2001
Click for audio RealAudio

U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone is disputing the findings of an FBI report that concludes Minnesota priest John Kaiser committed suicide. Kaiser was a Catholic missionary working in the African country of Kenya. Wellstone and friends and family of the priest say they believe the priest was killed by representatives of the Kenyan government.

Former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger (left) and Sen. Paul Wellstone (right) say they don't believe an FBI report that a Minnesota native killed himself in Kenya.
(MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
THE BODY of Minnesota native Father John Kaiser was discovered last August on the side of a road, in a rural area just outside the Kenyan capitol of Nairobi. Kaiser had been shot in the head.

Friends and family here are calling it murder. They say for months Kaiser had received death threats because of his advocacy work on behalf of poor Kenyans who were displaced in a government land-grab. But it was his accusation that a Kenyan government official had raped four young girls, that friends and relatives say may have been what led to the priest's death.

Sen. Paul Wellstone called for an FBI investigation last fall. That investigation concluded Father Kaiser committed suicide.

Relative Steve Lange of Arden Hills calls the FBI's finding of suicide, a joke. "I told my wife several years ago, when he was really pushing for social justice, and fighting the corruption over in Kenya, that Johnny's going to be murdered. And sad to say, that did occur," he said.

Sen. Wellstone says there is strong evidence that Father Kaiser was assassinated. "Look at all the death threats against him. This was not anything Father Kaiser imagined, this wasn't anything that had anything to do with any sickness. This was a social justice priest from the state of Minnesota who stood up for the people in Kenya, who stood up for human rights who confronted the corruption, who confronted the highest and most powerful officials in this government and in this country, who had numerous death threats against him, and then he lost his life. In that context, I just want to say, I cannot accept this FBI report."

Wellstone believes the FBI did not have the freedom to do a thorough investigation. He says Kenya has a long history of social justice priests found murdered, with nobody ever brought to justice.

Wellstone says the Kaiser investigation in Kenya was carried out in a climate of fear, and that Kenyan police authorities were present at every interview with witnesses.

FBI officials were not available for comment.

Moses Njenga, a Kenyan national and professor at the University of Minnesota, says Father Kaiser was widely known throughout the country as one of few people who fought for Kenyans.

"If you're a Kenyan, then you have to love all the religious leaders because they are almost always the only hope that we have. The government has been very good at repressing human rights fighters and politicians, and it's really the church that has kept that country from sinking."

Former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger of Minnesota knew Father John Kaiser for nearly 50 years, and knows firsthand about the political climate in Kenya. He says the Kenyan government of President Daniel arap Moi is a corrupt and dangerous one. Durenberger says he knows in his heart John Kaiser did not kill himself. He says his concern is make sure his old friend did not die in vain, and to push for greater U.S. involvement in Kenyan social justice issues.

"I believe in my heart that what he would want us to do is make sure nobody is ever in the position he was in. And I don't mean just American priests. I mean Kenyans, the Kenyan bishop Joseph Okemwa, his family's already been threatened. That's what he would want us to do," Durenberger said.

Relatives of Father Kaiser say they want vindication. They feel once the truth comes out about Kaiser then that will be the catalyst for social and political reform in Kenya.