Karl Deeds is engaged in a search. It has consumed the Long Beach man’s thoughts for more than a decade. It has taken him to Singapore and Cambodia. It has induced him to call press conferences and to join political organizations.
The search is for the bones of his older brother, Michael, whose 1979 death by torture made him one of only six Americans, according to the Western press, to have died in Cambodia’s notorious Tuol Sleng prison. A grisly extermination center, the prison was the site of an estimated 20,000 executions under the reign of Pol Pot, a Communist dictator who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1975 until 1979.
“I don’t plan to spend the rest of my life digging up graves,” said Deeds, 37. But he does plan to keep digging until he is satisfied that he has done everything possible to bring his dead brother home.
Michael Deeds was 29 in November, 1978, when he and a childhood friend, Christopher DeLance, set out from Singapore toward Thailand in a 42-foot sloop called the Iwalani. The two were experienced sailors, having already helped bring the boat from Hawaii, where Michael worked as a roofer to pay his bills and went sailing to have his fun.
Both raised in Long Beach, the friends had attended Wilson High School together. Michael, his brother remembers, was very athletic, loved the beach and played guitar. But a few years after graduation, disillusioned with the growing pollution and overcrowding of Southern California, he moved to Molokai, Hawaii, where he soon acquired a girlfriend and a passion for adventure.
The purpose of the young men’s last trip, Deeds said, was to deliver the Iwalani to a group of prospective buyers in Thailand.
But they never got there. Instead, Cambodian records later revealed, the friends were seized by Khmer Rouge troops somewhere off the Cambodian coast and taken to the prison in Phnom Penh. At Tuol Sleng, according to Karl Deeds, the two were tortured for more than 40 days until they finally signed “confessions” admitting to being CIA agents.
The confessions were false, Deeds asserts.
But on or about Jan. 5, 1979, he said, the two adventurers were executed just days before invading Vietnamese troops took control of the country and ended the slaughter.
Because the executioners were in a hurry, Deeds later learned, many of their final victims were buried in shallow graves on the prison grounds. And because the Khmer Rouge was concerned about its place in history, he learned, its soldiers--known for their brutality and paranoia regarding “infiltrators” and “traitors"--meticulously recorded every execution.
It was through those records that the world finally learned what had happened to Christopher DeLance and Michael Deeds. A year later a French journalist, the first Westerner allowed into the prison, noticed their names on a list of the dead. And copies of their signed confessions along with interviews with surviving prisoners later confirmed the story.
Karl Deeds, who was in the Navy at the time, heard the news on television. “I didn’t believe it,” said Deeds who, like his parents, had held out hope for Michael’s safety despite the family’s growing concern at not having heard from him in more than a year. “It was real hard.”
The news of his brother’s death set Deeds on a search that continues to this day. A free-lance television cameraman, he earns enough money when he works to pay for tickets to faraway places between assignments. And by living in the Long Beach home of his parents, who support the search, Deeds said, he has reduced his living expenses enough to be able to continue the project.
In 1980, Deeds made the first of several trips to Asia to piece together what had happened. And last year, after years of correspondence with the Vietnamese rulers of Cambodia anxious to distance themselves from their Khmer Rouge predecessors, Deeds finally became the first foreigner allowed to visit Tuol Sleng prison for the purpose of retrieving human remains.
The prison is a museum now. On its walls, Deeds said, hang hundreds of snapshots taken by meticulous Khmer Rouge soldiers of their prisoners in the moments before their deaths.
Deeds did not find a picture of his brother there. What he did find were six shallow graves which, by their locations and general condition, appeared to have been among the last dug. When their contents were exhumed, he said, the remains from two of them were identified by a local expert as those of Caucasians.
Deeds also found a former prisoner who, miraculously, had survived and remembered his brother.
Vann Nath, the prison artist, had been confined to a cell very close to the young American’s. Every evening, he told Deeds, he would see the guards leading Michael off to another area of the prison for interrogation. And hours later, he said, he would hear the strange and disquieting sound of the young man singing to himself in his cell after a long night of torture.
“That meant a lot to my family,” Deeds says now. “It meant that (Michael) was strong. It meant that he was doing his best.”
Armed only with a rudimentary plaster cast prepared by the family dentist showing Michael’s dental work up until the time he left home, Deeds was unable to positively identify either of the two Caucasian remains as those of his brother. So he had the bones stored in Phnom Penh and is negotiating through the American Red Cross for their return to the United States, where he hopes they can eventually be examined more thoroughly.
In the meantime, Deeds has earned a bachelor’s degree in Asian studies from Cal State Long Beach, is planning a television documentary on America’s role in recent Cambodian history and has become somewhat political.
By not doing enough to destroy the Khmer Rouge after its 1979 defeat by the Vietnamese, Deeds says, the United States has contributed to the group’s survival as a guerrilla force now fighting for political power in the wake of Vietnam’s recent withdrawal.
Last month, on the 11th anniversary of his brother’s death, Deeds held a press conference in front of the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles and called for the U.S. government to put pressure on China to end its longstanding support of the Khmer Rouge. Some of his comments, he said, were carried by a local television station.
And recently he traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in the founding of a national coalition called the Campaign to Protect Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, which shares his aims.
As for the bones, Deeds said, he has not given up. Should the human remains now stored in Phnom Penh prove to be the wrong ones, he said, he plans to make at least one more trip to look for more.