In 1992, five American nuns from the St. Louis order of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ were murdered in cold blood while serving in a missionary in Liberia.
The sisters, who volunteered for relief work in addition to ministerial service through their order, were extraordinary women. Sister Barbara Muttra, 69, was a cancer survivor who volunteered in Liberia knowing full well she would never have the same health care she had at home in America. Sister Mary Joel Kolmer, 58 and Sister Shirley Kolmer, 61, were cousins who had lobbied to serve in Liberia even though they knew President Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia was a constant threat. Sister Agnes Mueller, 62, was a theologian and a nurse—both practical skills in the field. Sister Kathleen McGuire, who was on her first tour of duty in Liberia, was so touched by the 1980 murder of five American nuns in El Salvador, she made a pilgrimage to their graves before heading to Liberia to carry out relief work.
The five sisters were the first American victims of Taylor’s violent Operation Octopus, during Liberia’s brutal civil wars that claimed over 150,000 lives. The nuns were allegedly murdered under the sinister direction of Martina Johnson, one of Taylor’s only female artillery chiefs and a frontline commander who allegedly carried out many of his hits during Operation Octopus. Johnson was arrested last week in Belgium and will face trial for war crimes, which could include charges for the murder of the American nuns.
The murders of the nuns are difficult to comprehend. On October 20, 1992, just five days after Operation Octopus was launched, Sister Barbara Muttra and Sister Mary Joel Kolmer were shot in their vehicles along with a Liberian colleague and two relief workers, apparently as part of the Operation’s agenda to rid Liberia of whites and those who worked with them. Their vehicle was riddled with bullets and then set alight.
According to reports at the time, their charred corpses were discovered two months later. “[Sister Mary] Joel’s skeleton sprawled by the front passenger side, her skull about a foot under the car, as if she had opened the door to flee and been knocked down and back by the bullets,” according to Nunblog, a religious blog about the case which chronicles firsthand account of relief workers and Catholic missionaries on the scene. “Barbara’s skeleton lay outside the driver’s side, as if she had been shot behind the wheel and fallen out, dead, when the door was opened.”
Three days later, on October 23, fighters came to the convent where the remaining sisters lived and first attacked Sister Kathleen McGuire when she was summoned to unlock the gate by a killer identified as Mosquito, who shot her first and then shot the other two before mutilating their bodies with a machete. “Mosquito shouted for someone to open the gates. Kathleen McGuire, the gate key in her hand, began to walk the 40 or so paces toward him,” according to Nunblog, which chronicles the horrific events. “He fired once. The bullet hit Kathleen in the forearm. She stumbled and fell. The gunman fired again, at Kathleen’s neck. The second bullet killed her. ‘I’m going to kill all the white people!’ screamed Mosquito.”
Their bodies would be discovered more than a month after they died, after fierce fighting in the African nation subsided. Very few of their remains were recoverable, according to Father Mike Moran, who visited the scene to collect what was left, but the smears of blood from the brutal killings stained the convent walls.
The nuns’ murders have long been considered a closed case. Taylor, who is serving a 50-year sentence in Britain for war crimes and crimes against humanity, testified during his trial that the nuns were not a target, but had been caught in crossfire despite the fact that they were shot during two different episodes three days apart. According to court documents, Taylor told the British court that convicted him that the United States could not blame him for their deaths. “The Government of the United States raised that issue, we had it investigated and it remained an issue today that was determined that actually it could not be said with any certainty that the NPFL killed those nuns,” Taylor told the court. “They died in crossfire and that’s the information that was circulated between the Government of the United States and I would like to see anything to the contrary.”
Taylor’s son Chuckie was convicted of torture in 2009 for affiliation with his father’s work and is serving a 97-year sentence in a prison in Miami, Florida.
Johnson’s capture may finally close the chapter on what happened to the American nuns. Her arrest last week is being lauded as a step towards justice for all who died under Taylor’s regime and operations carried out under Operation Octopus. The Vatican did not have an immediate comment on the developing situation, but historically the Catholic Church did not choose to pursue criminal justice for fear of putting other missionary workers in danger out of fear of retaliation attacks.
Many in Liberia believe that Johnson’s arrest will pave the way for further arrests and eventually justice. “We believe that this will begin to give people hope in Liberia for justice,” Liberian Hassan Bility, an African journalist held and tortured by members of Taylor’s regime, told the BBC’s Focus on Africa. “You can never build a true democracy if you do not have justice as one of its cardinal foundations.”
Prior to her arrest, Johnson was living under partial immunity in Gent, Belgium, while a case was being built against her. She tried unsuccessfully to enter the United States in 2011, according to Interpol documents. In her application for asylum in Belgium, she lied about when she joined Operation Octopus, according to local press reports in Liberia, which stated she said that she joined Taylor’s forces after the operation was underway. The Belgian court is now determining whether to grant Johnson bail while she awaits trial.