Sense of Mystery Deepens Over Slaying of Family : Murders: Ian Spiro had financial problems and ties to spy agencies. But did he kill his wife and children?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since moving to this cloistered upscale community last year, Ian and Gail Spiro and their attractive, redheaded children maintained an active, outgoing and prosperous lifestyle.

Sara, 16, and Adam, 14, rode horses and skateboards. Gail, 41, served on the local Welcome Wagon when she wasn't playing tennis or bridge at a tony country club. And Ian Stuart Spiro, 46, who described himself as an international commodities broker, dropped by the Fairbanks Country Day School most afternoons to pick up precocious Dina, 11, the couple's youngest child.

Long before Spiro's family was brutally slain this month in a confounding case that has rocked San Diego County and resulted in a stream of sensational murder theories, various pressures may have begun eating away at the engaging but shadowy British businessman.

For one thing, Spiro, who leased a sprawling, four-bedroom home for his family, was falling behind on the $5,000-a-month rent, his car payments and the grocery bills.

According to friends and relatives, Spiro had begun voicing ominous concerns in October about a series of vague telephone threats. The calls, they say Spiro told them, stemmed from his murky activities during the past decade in war-torn Lebanon. Telling a friend he wanted to protect his family, Spiro borrowed a .38-caliber revolver.

On Halloween, a Saturday, the Spiros attended an afternoon carnival at Dina's school, where Gail helped run the fifth-grade class booth. Later, they trick-or-treated with Dina, who was dressed in a witch's costume, and ate dinner and played bridge at the home of a Solana Beach couple whom they had first met while living on the French Riviera during the mid-1980s.

At 6 p.m. Sunday, Ian Spiro visited a local video store and rented three family films. Then, or so it seemed, the Spiros vanished.

Four days later, shortly after dark, concerned neighbors walked up the sloping driveway of the family's shake-roofed home and peeked in a bedroom window by the pool. On the bed was Dina's lifeless body, a bullet in her head.

When sheriff's deputies arrived, they also found the bodies of Gail, Adam and Sara in their own bedrooms--each shot in the head. The four had apparently died, forensic tests showed, on Sunday, Nov. 1, or the next day.

Ian Spiro, who was quickly identified as a suspect, was found dead Sunday, Nov. 8, in the front seat of his Ford Explorer in the moonscape setting of Coachwhip Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, three hours but a veritable world away from sylvan Rancho Santa Fe. The cause of death, authorities said, was cyanide poisoning.

In subsequent weeks, detectives have released few details about the case. But as information dribbles out in daily news accounts, the sense of mystery surrounding the Spiro family slayings deepens.

Web of Intrigue

Mounting evidence indicates that Spiro, as reported shortly after his death in breathy British media accounts, had contacts in the business and intelligence nether worlds of war-torn Lebanon. Some reports suggest that he may have played a role in introducing hostage negotiator, and eventual hostage, Terry Waite to Shiite kidnapers of U.S. and British hostages in Beirut during the mid-1980s.

Sheriff's detectives, who continue to label Spiro a suspect, have called in the FBI to help determine if such connections played a part in the deaths.

"People are talking about terrorists, people are talking about hired assassins, people are talking about political factors that may have influenced this--and we're going to have to explore each and every one of them," said Lt. John Tenwolde, head of the homicide bureau. "This is going to be a long process."

Did Spiro's financial troubles push him over the brink to kill his family and himself, and if so, why did he wait several days to commit suicide? Or could the entire family have been murdered by assailants ranging from angry business partners to international terrorists to Western intelligence agents?

The slim evidence available--coupled with the dearth of details from officials--is ambiguous on several key issues.

The handgun is a good example.

San Diego attorney James W. Street, who described the tall, mustachioed Spiro as a friend and onetime client, told the Sheriff's Department that he lent Spiro a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver two weeks before the family's bodies were discovered. But the reason Spiro said he asked for the weapon, Street said, was to ensure his family's safety.

Sheriff's investigators have refused to clarify the issue by disclosing whether the bullets used in the shootings were of the same caliber as those in the weapon Spiro borrowed.

Uncertainties also abound concerning Spiro's financial situation.

Although real estate sources say Spiro had fallen two months behind in his rent and owed another $5,000 as of Nov. 1, Ken Quarton, Gail Spiro's half-brother, said that Ian had faced serious money problems in the past and never cracked.

"Ian has made and lost four fortunes that I have known; his adrenaline rush was doing 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 business deals all at the same time," Quarton said. "He didn't worry whether he was $5 million in the hole or $10 million in the bank."

Quarton testified at a British inquest last week that Spiro had paid a $5,000 telephone bill the day before his family died and placed a request for a new credit card--not the actions, he said, of a man planning to kill himself.

Most important, Quarton added, Spiro adored his children and his relationship with his wife was "rock solid--always--from the moment they met."

"If he had done it himself, he would have lain down next to Gail and killed himself. He would not have gone into the desert."

According to relatives and friends, Spiro, a onetime real estate broker in London, met Gail in the mid-1970s after divorcing his first wife, with whom he had two daughters. Gail, a fellow Briton, moved with Ian to Beirut and worked as a physiotherapist at the American Hospital while Ian cut business deals.

By the late 1970s, fighting in the once-cosmopolitan Middle East city had grown intense and Spiro moved his growing family to a succession of European resort towns, friends said. But he continued to conduct business in Lebanon, telling friends later that his specialty was importing cigarettes.

Spiro also appears to have dabbled in the exchange of information, according to two British journalists who have published books on the Lebanese hostage affair.

In "Terry Waite and Ollie North: The Untold Story of the Kidnaping--and the Release," BBC correspondent Gavin Hewitt wrote that North put Waite in contact with a shadowy figure named "Spiro" who helped Waite contact the Shiite Muslims holding U.S. and British hostages.

Hewitt, in a telephone interview, said Spiro does not appear to have been a full-fledged American or British intelligence agent but a man whose contacts in the Middle East could occasionally prove "helpful to the CIA and maybe others."

Hewitt, who claims to have seen unexpurgated copies of North's diaries, said Spiro's name appears on several pages.

Analysts at the National Security Archives, a private organization that maintains copies of federal records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, say they cannot confirm that Spiro's name is in North's diary. Analyst Peter Kornbluh said U.S. intelligence agencies were allowed to black out names they believed could affect national security.

However, Kornbluh said that unnamed sources have "fully convinced" him that Spiro's name is in the blacked-out portions of the notebooks.

Hostage Connections

North will not comment on the Spiro case, his assistant told The Times. Waite, in his only statement to the press, neither confirmed nor denied any association with Spiro.

"I had contact with hundreds of people prior to my first face-to-face meeting with the kidnapers in Beirut," Waite said. "Even if I could identify these contacts I would not because of the obvious dangers."

One ex-hostage who confirms that he met Spiro is former American University Hospital director David Jacobsen, freed in 1986 after 532 days of captivity.

Jacobsen, who lives in Huntington Beach, said that in 1988, Spiro, introducing himself by the alias John Smith, asked him for help in establishing a humanitarian foundation to retrain militiamen in South Lebanon for careers in carpentry and plumbing.

Although the project never came to fruition, Jacobsen said he checked on Spiro's background and learned from sources in various U.S. government agencies that "this guy has done marvelous things for us in the past--he's deep in the system."

"That doesn't mean he's an agent of the (British) MI-6 or the CIA," Jacobsen added. "There are people well placed throughout this planet who possess special knowledge or contacts and frequently they'll approach the Western intelligence community, or are approached, to provide information.

"Apparently (Spiro) was a man highly placed in Lebanon who knew the right people," the former hostage said.

In last week's British coroner's inquest in the Cumbrian town of Whitehaven, where Gail was raised, Quarton said Spiro was distressed about the publication of his identity.

"I learned he had been crying on the telephone about the book, which made it seem he had been working for the United States," Quarton said. "That is so dangerous in the Arab world. Ian knew he was in mortal danger."

Yet San Diego-area friends of Spiro say that in the past few months, he proudly showed them a copy of Hewitt's book, which was published last year. Moreover, since moving to the swank northern San Diego County community, Spiro used his real name and had a listed telephone number.

"If Ian was a spy then we have problems with our spies," said one business associate. "He was very open. If that's what our spies are like, then they're not very secretive."

Indeed, in the final months of his life, Spiro apparently called Hewitt and several other British reporters offering to tell the story of his exploits in the Middle East.

"He asked me about getting a publisher in London," Hewitt said. "He seemed to be interested in getting a publisher's advance in six figures."

Sunday Telegraph correspondent Con Coughlin, author of the just-released book "Hostage," said Spiro phoned him in London three weeks before his death and said he would be in London soon and contact him. Coughlin said Spiro also asked what was written about him in "Hostage," an overall examination of the Beirut hostage crisis.

The book refers to a "Spiro" on a single page, linking him to North. It also says Spiro was "later given a new identity and now lives in California."

Several years before taking up residence in San Diego County, Spiro moved his family to Nice, France, where they became friendly with Joe and Johanna Zerboni, whose daughter was in kindergarten with Dina.

When Joe Zerboni, who works for an international computer firm, was transferred to San Diego, the couples continued to see each other. Gail loved San Diego, Johanna Zerboni said, and at her urging, the Spiros decided to relocate there last year.

After renting two other homes--the second said to have been plagued by sewer problems--the Spiros settled in April into the landscaped Avenida Maravillas home on a hillside next to a lemon grove not far from the 12th hole of the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club.

While Gail, who friends said did not take part in her husband's business dealings, played tennis and socialized, Ian acted more like a house husband than a financial wheeler-dealer. Usually wearing jogging suits or casual slacks, he carted the children to school, friends said, and did the shopping and much of the cooking.

"He was very domestic," said one of his wife's friends. "He treated her like a princess. We were all jealous."

When Spiro enrolled Dina and Adam at the Country Day School, he told director Christine Cornish that his business was international commodities. "He mentioned selling European cars to Japan," Cornish recalled. "I thought: 'A man of the world.' "

But even if Spiro was attempting to make such deals, his only steady income, sources said, was from investments in 900-number dating, psychic prediction and live chat lines.

Using the business name Home Media Promotions, Spiro would advertise his pay-per-call lines in newspapers around the country, earning revenues from each call generated. The services provided on the lines were operated by a La Jolla firm, New Media Telecommunications Inc., which took a 10% cut.

"It's a turnkey operation--you purchase a 900 number like you buy a stock," said a New Media official who became friendly with Spiro. "The normal 900 investor is a very passive investor. . . . He determines an ad budget and every month it comes due."

Spiro, however, "was a little different than any of our other clients," the official said. "He was here every day. We used to joke around the office: 'Ian, you need to get a hobby.' "

During the summer, the official said, Spiro spent as much as $50,000 a month in newspaper ads and was earning about $20,000 a month. He also sought investors of his own.

"I think Ian was trying to stay one step ahead of the game," the New Media official said. "He was not the kind of guy who would con you out of something with an intention to never pay you back. He had the ability because of his friendly nature to get what he wanted out of people, but always with the intention of paying them back with the next deal."

By the fall, however, Spiro's monthly ad budget had shrunk to $7,000 a month and he was earning $5,000 a month, the official said. He began asking to borrow each month's anticipated earnings in advance, as well as cash loans of $500 at a time, the official said.

A few weeks before the killings, several acquaintances said they noticed sharp changes in Spiro's normally affable character.

"He seemed very, very disturbed," said the New Media official. "He never completed his sentences, really. He didn't really make sense with everything he said."

The official attributed the personality swing to a failed deal with foreign investors. "I don't know who they were," he said. "It was for 900 numbers."

The Final Weeks

Street also noticed a change. He said it occurred after Spiro said he had attended a meeting with unnamed Hollywood producers considering a feature film based on his Middle East experiences.

"He just thought he'd show up at a meeting and they'd give him a check," Street said. "(But) the red carpet wasn't rolled out. He wasn't issued a check."

Soon after, Street said, Spiro claimed to be getting phone calls "warning him not to go through with the movie." Spiro asked Street if he owned a weapon, the lawyer said.

"My flippant response was: 'Doesn't everyone in Southern California have a gun?' " Street said. "And he (Spiro) said: 'Can I borrow it?' "

"I'm not sure I gave it too much second thought and I said, 'sure.' I mean, you know, if it would have made him feel better and more secure about the state that he seemed to be in."

On Halloween night Spiro seemed to friends somewhat subdued but otherwise normal. Gail was as jovial as ever.

Sheriff's investigators, who believe the shootings took place Sunday night or Monday morning, say there appeared to be no sign of a struggle.

That assessment, however, was called into question last week at the British inquest. Whitehaven pathologist Ramzi George Ghazala testified that when he inspected the bodies of Gail and the children upon their return for burial, he discovered bruise marks on Gail's face, lips and knuckles. The marks suggested a struggle prior to her death.

Since the murders, the Spiro family's maid, Paula Rojas, has told reporters that when she showed up for work shortly after 7 a.m. on Monday, she met an unshaven, robed Ian Spiro standing in the kitchen.

Rojas, 18, said Spiro seemed surprised to see her and ushered her into a room in a guest house. Spiro went back in the main house, dressed and then drove her back to the migrant camp where she stayed on weekends.

She said he told her that his family was not home and that he had "problems."

The last known sighting of Spiro came a day or two later in Borrego Springs, 80 miles from his home. Ramon Daniels, a horse farm manager, reported spotting Spiro alone at a pay phone shortly after 6 a.m. Daniels was buying a newspaper in a vending machine five feet away.

"I can never forget that look in his eyes," said Daniel, who said Spiro had the phone to his ear. "They were kind of glassy, shiny-eyed. Maybe he had been crying or drinking or smoking, who knows?"

Investigators are still trying to determine Spiro's whereabouts in the days between the shootings and Nov. 8, when hikers discovered his body. They are also continuing to search for the murder weapon and for a briefcase owned by Spiro.

"The complexity of the case is such that it won't be finished in the next week or two," said sheriff's Capt. James Marmack.

Even then, many wonder whether the truth will ever be known.

"I've been over this thing so many times in my mind," said Johanna Zerboni, who is convinced that Spiro loved his wife and children too much to have harmed them. "I don't think anybody is ever going to find out what happened. It's too mysterious."

Last week, Gail, Sara, Adam and Dina were buried in Boot, England, in the scenic Lakeside district where the Spiro family had taken hiking vacations. Ian Spiro's body was cremated in the United States at the request of his relatives. His ashes were laid in his wife's coffin.

Times staff writers William Tuohy contributed from London and Robert Jackson from Washington. Staff writer H.G. Reza and correspondent Katharine B. Lowrie contributed from San Diego.

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