Middle East Mystery

01.30.15 10:45 AM ET

American in Saudi: Suicide or Nefarious Murder?

Saudi Arabia authorities say Christopher Cramer killed himself, but his nephew and lawyer say he may have been slain for threatening a lucrative arms deal.

Hours before his body was found on the ground outside his third-floor hotel room in Saudi Arabia, Christopher Cramer texted his roommate back in the States, “I think something bad is going to happen to me tonight.” It was around 2 a.m. in New Hampshire when the message arrived, and Cramer was dead by the time his friend read the text. Almost immediately, Saudi authorities called it a suicide.

Cramer’s family suspects foul play, but with his body still thousands of miles away and outside the reach of U.S. authorities, they don’t know where to turn for justice.

The night Cramer died, he also made three missed calls to his lawyer between 2:40 and 2:48 a.m. The voicemails contained the same dire warnings, his lawyer said.

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U.S. government officials are not commenting on the cause of Cramer’s death while they wait for the results of an investigation by the local Saudi police.

“All the information we’re getting back right now,” said Cramer’s nephew Christopher Arsenault, “is that the State Department and FBI, everybody, is sitting on their hands waiting for the Saudis to do their investigation.”

Arsenault and his uncle were close. “My dad wasn’t around too much when I was a kid so my uncle really took that spot,” he said. They stayed in regular contact, texting while Cramer was in Saudi Arabia.

“He wasn’t depressed,” Arsenault said of his uncle, “he wasn’t in debt, he just adopted a puppy, a little Doberman named rugby.”

“I’d say he was at the high point of his life.”

Which makes it that much harder to believe that his uncle would have killed himself.

In the absence of a transparent and thorough investigation into Cramer’s death, his nephew and lawyer have come up with their own theory. They both suggest Cramer may have been killed for getting on the wrong side of a corrupt Saudi contracting officer and threatening a lucrative arms deal. The evidence for that charge relies almost entirely on hearsay, but it seems more plausible to them than a suicide.

Noah Mandell, a lawyer who was a close friends with Cramer and now represents his family, told Fox News, “He was there, he was in danger, and I believe he was killed.”

For 12 years before his death, Cramer worked for Kollsman Inc., a New Hampshire-based defense company that sells weapons parts and provides technical support to go along with them.

On Jan. 8, Kollsman sent Cramer on his first trip to Saudi Arabia.

“We sold [the Saudi military] the system quite a while ago and we were asked for support for a demonstration,” said Cramer’s boss, Clark Freise. The system in question was a thermal sight for the TOW missile, a wire-guided anti-armor weapon also used by the U.S. military.

Also along on the trip was Todd Kulik, a fellow Kollsman employee. Kulik met with Cramer’s family after his death and told them that the two of them had worked closely with a Saudi employee of Global Defense Systems, a defense contractor based in the Gulf kingdom.

“My uncle was getting into it with this guy from day one,” Arsenault said of the Global Defense Systems worker.

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“I know the name,” said Chris Puffer, vice president and general counsel for Kollsman’s parent company, Elbit America, when presented with the Saudi employee’s name. Though he said he doesn’t know him personally, Puffer added, “I know he was the contact that our folks were working with when they went to Saudi Arabia.”

Mandell believes that the same Saudi contractor was intent on sabotaging military equipment that Cramer was being paid to fix.

“According to Kulik, before the big demonstrations the equipment was checked out and worked fine,” Mandell said. But “when Chris and people showed up nothing worked. All the circuits were down.”

“In two hours, Chris got everything working,” Mandell said. “That upset people because they didn’t want it to work.”

“The point of sabotaging equipment is you get a customer who has to buy a new set and you’ve still got the old equipment,” Mandell said. 

Without much to go on but no other leads, Cramer’s advocates don’t need to prove anyone’s guilt to point at a suspect and away from the official account of a suicide.

Puffer said he has heard this explanation of Cramer’s death before. “I’ve heard that told to me by the family attorney.” He added, “I have never heard any basis for that whatsoever.”

Cramer’s family and friends are unlikely to take Puffer’s word for it. They’re already skeptical of the company, which they say rushed to accept that Cramer’s death was a suicide. “The question,” according to Mandell, “is why did they jump the gun and start screaming from the rooftops before they made a determination?”

“Why,” Mandell asks, “was Chris calling his dogsitter and his lawyer in America instead of his own company?”

“They sent him into hell and had no plan to get him back.”

Kollsman originally told Cramer's family that his death was a suicide, but now says it is waiting for the outcome of the Saudi investigation.

“We shared the information related to Chris’s death exactly as it was told to us by the U.S. officials,” Puffer said. “The company did not conclude anything; we were simply sharing that information with the family that we got.”

The circumstances of Cramer’s suicide may seem implausible, but there’s scant evidence right now to support the narrative of his murder. Yet the family’s speculation has filled a vacuum around a dead American that U.S. authorities can’t investigate.

A statement on Cramer’s death from the State Department advises, “For questions regarding the investigation, we refer you to the Tabuk Police Department.”

Technically, it’s up to the FBI to investigate when an American dies overseas. But the FBI only gets involved “if they are invited to do so by the local authorities,” a State Department official told The Daily Beast. “They don’t have the jurisdiction to go into a country and start an investigation. They have to be invited in.” An FBI spokesman told The Daily Beast, “Our standard practice is to neither confirm nor deny FBI investigations.”

That leaves Christopher Cramer’s people with few options. They can wait for the judgment of the Tabuk police—or continue their own investigation.