SF attorney searches for Iranian money

March 13, 2009 10:55:54 PM PDT
The 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon killed more than 200 marines. Twenty-five years later, the victims and their families, are getting closer to a small piece of justice.

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The 1983 bombing of the u-s marine barracks in Beirut killed more than 200 service members. 25 years later, the victims and their families including one in the central valley are getting closer to a small piece of justice. Matt Keller has the story of a mariposa woman looking for closure and her attorney chasing after Iran.

On October 23, 1983, a truck loaded with 12,000 pounds of TNT drove into the Marine barracks in Beirut and exploded. There were 241 U.S. service members in Lebanon for a peace keeping mission who were killed -- including Marine Tandy Walker Wells. His mother was at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina when she heard the news.

"I knew he was on the second floor of that building. And you hope and pray, but you already know," said Cleta Wells.

Cleta moved to Mariposa 10 years ago to be closer to her son. Memorabilia of Tandy is spread throughout her home, including the Purple Heart he received posthumously.

"In the evening, when the families are together, there's no one. It's just a part of you is gone," said Cleta.

A little bit of justice may come soon for Cleta. Victims' families filed a civil suit in 2001 against Iran. Six years later, a U.S. judge ruled against Iran and awarded the victims and their families $2.65 billion.

Iran has been blamed for supporting the militant group Hezbollah, which carried out the suicide bombing on the barracks. Iran has rejected the ruling, calling it baseless, but one San Francisco attorney is inching closer to the money.

"I'm in the collection business, I'm not in the justice business, but in this particular case, justice is money and money is justice," said David Cook, an attorney.

Cook may be best known for collecting the debt owed by O.J. Simpson to the Goldman family from the civil trial. He was able to take the rights of the book, "If I Did It" away from Simpson.

Cook was hired in March 2008 to be the lead collection attorney in the United States, but getting $2.65 billion from a country that vowed never to pay, requires some creativity.

"They communicated to us their position, they communicated a position called GPS. Now that's not global positioning satellite, if you have one in your car, but it was, 'Go pound sand!' And that's what they said very politely," said David Cook.

That didn't stop Cook. In the federal courts, he made his move.

In San Francisco, he asked for Iran's financial information including money in U.S. banks. In Los Angeles, Cook has claims on what he believes is Iranian oil in the hands of companies like Royal Dutch Shell, E.N.I., Nippon and Total. In Illinois, one of the greatest collections of Iranian antiquities at the University of Chicago is now being claimed by Cook, as well as $330 million worth of wheat bought by Iran. In New York City, Cook is hoping to land a 5th Avenue building he believes was once owned by Iran.

One of the lead attorneys for the families says if all the assets claimed by Cook are liquidated, it could be more than enough to pay off the entire $2.65 billion judgment.

"We're confident that sooner than later we're going to reach something. It could be tomorrow, it could be ten years, chasing a sovereign is time consuming," said Cook.

The impact of this case could be important to the political standoff between Iran and the United States. Libya normalized its relationship with the U.S. by taking responsibility for the 1988 Pan American bombing over Lockerbie and paying money to the victims and their families.

Stanford University's director of Iranian studies, Abbas Milani, Ph.D., says the judgment could be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations.

"I think there are several things that both sides can play in the bargaining. This would certainly be one of them," said Milani.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad mentioned a possible change in tone with the Obama Administration and was open to talks. President Obama's national security team is also looking at areas to have constructive dialogue.

Regardless, the judgment still matters to Cleta. Although it won't bring back her son, she says it would mean Iran had less money to support terrorist acts like the one that took the life of her loved one 25 years ago.

"It means the world, it means everything. It would be a closure in some respects. We can say yes, we finally done it. I'm waiting for someone to tell me that," said Cleta Wells.

Twenty-five years later, Cleta Wells is closer than ever to finally hearing those words.

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