American Found Guilty in Absentia of Rwanda Killing of Gorilla Expert Fossey

Times Staff Writer

A Rwandan tribunal Thursday found American researcher Wayne Richard McGuire guilty of murdering renowned gorilla expert Dian Fossey last year and sentenced him in absentia to death by hanging.

McGuire, 35, of Hazlet, N.J., returned to the United States in July, just days before a warrant was issued in Rwanda for his arrest. He has denied the charges.

The verdict came a week after the 40-minute trial in the village of Ruhengeri. No defense case was presented.


A Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oklahoma, McGuire had been working with Fossey about four months when the 53-year-old American naturalist was hacked to death Dec. 27 in her cabin at the remote Karisoke research center on the misty slopes of the Virunga volcano range.

Manuscript Called Motive

The Rwandan government alleged that McGuire murdered Fossey in order to steal the manuscript of the sequel to her 1983 book, “Gorillas in the Mist.” At the trial, conducted in the local Kinyarwanda language, investigators said McGuire was not happy with his own research and wanted to use “any dishonest means possible” to complete his work.

Michael Mayock, McGuire’s Century City attorney, Thursday told The Times by telephone that the trial “was a farce (whose) outcome was foreordained. I believe and Wayne believes that in a fair trial he would be found innocent of all charges.”

The lawyer said McGuire is living in the United States, but he declined to name the city and said his client would not be able to comment until an article McGuire co-authored for Discover magazine is released in mid-January.

‘My Friend and Mentor’

At a news conference in Los Angeles in August, McGuire said he had “absolutely nothing to do with Dian Fossey’s tragic death.” He described her as “my friend and mentor” and called the charges “outrageous.”

As evidence, the government said a laboratory analysis of hair found clenched in Fossey’s fist at the murder scene belonged to a white person, and, it said, McGuire was the only white at the research center that night.


Nothing was taken from Fossey’s cabin the night of her death, according to the government. Investigators said they found radios, cameras, a pistol “that belonged to the CIA” and $1,239 in cash. But, they alleged, two months later, in February, McGuire went into Fossey’s cabin and took two boxes of papers to his cabin.

Although they issued an international arrest warrant last summer, Rwanda authorities have made no attempts to have McGuire arrested in the United States and extradited. The two countries do not have an extradition treaty.

Rwandan Also Charged

Officials had also charged a Rwandan, Emmanuel Rwerekana, who was fired from his job after he tried to kill Fossey with a machete, according to the government’s account of McGuire’s trial. But the charges were dropped last week after Rwerekana was found hanged in his jail cell.

The government alleged that Rwerekana and McGuire were good friends, but McGuire’s colleagues have said the two didn’t speak a common language well enough to communicate.

Authorities suspected for a time that poachers might have killed Fossey, who had waged a sometimes violent battle to protect the dwindling population of mountain gorillas against African poachers. The poachers sell skins, paws and skulls as novelty items.

The murder weapon, a machete-like tool known in Africa as a panga, was found under Fossey’s bed. No autopsy was performed because there are no coroners in Rwanda, a landlocked country of about 6 million south of Uganda in east-central Africa.


Thesis on Gorillas

McGuire, a quiet, bearded graduate student, had come to the research center to develop his thesis in the parental behavior of male gorillas. He left Karisoke after being told by the U.S. Embassy that the authorities would probably arrest him.

Mayock, the attorney, said McGuire had not taken any of Fossey’s papers. “There was a good reason for him not wanting her papers,” Mayock said. “He had a very specific subject for his thesis, which was unusual and would not have related itself to other work that other researchers might have been doing.”

McGuire is currently writing his graduate thesis and “would just as soon have his privacy respected,” Mayock said.

‘Trial by Ambush’

The lawyer said he had advised McGuire not to take the risk of defending himself in a Rwandan court “that practices trial by ambush. It would be foolish to subject him to a tribunal that has already made up its mind before the trial.”

Fossey came to Africa in 1967 with the blessing of the anthropologist Louis Leakey. A former physical therapist in California, she earned her doctorate in animal research at Cambridge University and was drawn to Africa because it offered “freedom, adventure, total lack of restraint,” she said later.

She was buried in a gorilla graveyard near her cabin.