‘Soldier of Misfortune’ Faces Yet Another Court Date


Billy Joe Keesee, known over the years as both a crook and a soldier of misfortune, is going back to court once again.

This time it’s for an alleged scam in Long Beach, one in which officials say he has admitted distributing--while impersonating a Federal Emergency Management Agency official--phony purchase orders to buy equipment that was supposedly needed to fight disasters.

But that is very small stuff compared with some of the other things that have put him in the headlines over the last three decades: the two plane hijackings--one to Cuba, the other to North Vietnam--his release from a Hanoi prison, the conspiracy conviction in the kidnapping of an American diplomat in Mexico and the theft of an airplane while posing as a CIA agent.


Keesee, once a teenage hero, the winner of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star during the Korean War, has done all that and more in his 61 years. For his deeds and misdeeds he has spent much of his life in prison.

This afternoon, he is set to stand before a federal judge in Los Angeles, where, as part of a plea agreement, he is expected to admit to impersonating a FEMA official in Long Beach three years ago, federal prosecutors say.

For a few short weeks, prosecutors say, Keesee was a bogus FEMA official, a ploy he may have succeeded at for longer than usual because such officials have become common fixtures on Southern California’s disaster-prone landscape.

Morrie Goodman, FEMA’s chief public affairs officer, said he had never heard of a similar ruse. “There are people who get very creative in trying to take advantage of disasters,” he said.

Keesee allegedly set up an office and began writing fake purchase orders for everything from a car to high-priced electronic gear to a kind of gold wire that is almost totally pure. Keesee could not be reached for comment because a Terminal Island prison official said that two weeks’ notice is needed to talk to a prisoner.

It was the gold wire, valued at $32,000, that raised warning flags for federal investigators.


The beginnings of Keesee’s story have something of an Audie Murphy tone--a Texas boy who joined the paratroopers in the Korean War, winning his medals in an attempt to rescue a group of captured soldiers.

Then, at age 28, Sgt. Bobby Joe Keesee left his Army base in Arizona on leave and dumbfounded those around him. He hijacked a light plane and flew to Cuba, where he asked Fidel Castro for political asylum. Castro refused, sending him back to the United States.

During what would be the first of many trials, Keesee claimed that he had been working for the CIA. The CIA denied it and Keesee spent two years in prison.

He surfaced next in 1970, claiming he was one of 57 hostages released by Palestinian guerrillas at an Amman, Jordan, hotel. Later the same year, he hijacked a plane in Bangkok and ordered the pilot to fly him to North Vietnam.

Two and a half years later, he was released from a Hanoi prison, dubbed both a “mystery man” and a “soldier of misfortune.”

A year later, he was back in prison.

In 1974, John Patterson, a U.S. diplomat stationed in Mexico, was kidnapped and murdered. Keesee, living in Huntington Beach and working as a cabinetmaker in Santa Ana, pleaded guilty to conspiring to kidnap the diplomat for ransom, but denied any connection to the murder. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.


Keesee was convicted of mail fraud in his attempt to bilk a company out of 634,000 pounds of copper and was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1987.

Keesee was released in 1992, only to come to California, where he allegedly set up the FEMA scam.

According to an affidavit filed in federal court, the Long Beach ruse fell apart when a man identified as Barry Vetger, owner of a New Jersey company dealing in gold wire, became suspicious of an order placed by a “Willie J. Jamerson.”

Vetger called investigators when, among other things, Jamerson answered his own phone--something the company owner thought was suspicious because of the layers of federal bureaucracy.

Jamerson, who federal officials say was actually Keesee, fled before investigators could make an arrest. But he turned up in Mexico, again playing a CIA agent.

Investigators said he lured a New Jersey-based aviation company into flying a DeHavilland Caribou DHC-4A aircraft to an airport in Toluca, Mexico, in 1993.


A year later, police arrested Keesee in Germany. After being extradited, he was tried in New Jersey and convicted of the airplane theft and passport violations. He was sentenced to 57 months.

U.S. officials transferred him to Los Angeles two months ago to stand trial in connection with the FEMA scam. Newhouse said Keesee agreed to plead guilty to four counts. He could be sentenced to 18 years in prison and fined $1 million.