The unlikely friendship between Muhammad Ali & Richard Hirschfeld
. . . and a story of their amazing involvement in international intrigue!
As I watched the funeral for Muhammad Ali, many wonderful things were said about him and as far as I am concerned, he deserved every word of praise. He was larger than life and despite his public persona, I knew him to be a quiet, soft spoken man in private who was highly religious.
He was praised by political notables such as President Bill Clinton and Senator Orin Hatch. These politicians are political opposites. But both found a friendship with this man, who was able to forge a relationship that could bridge political and economic divides.
As the funeral ended, I thought someone would mention the man who spent more time with Ali than all the others. But regrettably, the name of Richard Hirschfeld was not mentioned. As you read what follows, you will understand why the family omitted any mention of Richar.
I had many recollections of that era and my relationship with Hirschfel, which had been in the recesses of my mind, until Ali died. Then everything came forward and I began to remember. I had continued to stay in touch with Richard by phone, for a period of a few years as Richard and Ali pursued their life of mystery – circumstances leading them to elements of intrigue!
I had kept my contacts with Richard away from my wife who might be concerned that Richard’s activities might have backlash that could involve me. That was not the cas, however, but when Ali died, I felt compelled to write an article about these two men and the strange Cloak and Dagger relationship they had together — and the international intrigue that followed them.
After a time, I was no longer in contact with Richard. This series of articles is a blend of personal knowledge as well as facts of his life in news reports of the time plus Internet related material. I have spoken to Richard’s wife Loretta and hope to see her in person. She has never remarried and she continues to bear her husband’s name. She still lives on the farm where Richard lived with Muhammad Ali.
Here is our first installment:
Richard Hirschfeld was 57 years of age, and in that time he had gained and lost fortunes; had been prosecuted and by his own account persecuted. He had spent four years in prison and eight years on the run from the law.
He had been a financier, a political insider and fugitive, and had lived among worldwide celebrities, like Mohammed Ali, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Roberto Duran, and various Saudi sheiks, Richard Nixon, Ferdinand Marcos, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein.
Richard Hirschfeld had become Mohammed Ali’s closest confidant. The two had secretly audio-taped a conversation of Ferdinand Marcos, who was plotting to retake control of the Philippines. And, during a two-year period, Hirschfeld spent time consorting with members of Fidel Castro’s inner circle. But the man who parlayed a brilliant legal mind and mesmerizing powers of persuasion into a career of power politics and international intrigue may have saved his boldest gambit for the very end.
While one federal agency was trying to hunt him down for crimes he allegedly committed in the 1990s, he was purportedly helping another agency wage the war on terrorism. He had made many enemies with his deal-making, rule-breaking style and his roguish hell-bent approach to life and work. But ultimately he was unable to contend with his inner-enemy
Hirschfeld stated his intent to take his own life in order to send the message to anyone that was willing to listen, since no one had bothered to hear him over the previous 14 years. In a suicide letter, he confronted personal demons and provided insights into a life marked by cloak-and-dagger missions, sometimes conducted under assumed names and secret meetings with world leaders. Throughout, he makes the case for his innocence and maintains that his criminal conviction in 1991 on securities and tax fraud, and indictments returned against him in 1996 and 1997 were politically motivated and baseless. He said that he could not bear to see his family endure the anguish of another trial:
His suicide letter went on to say that he had promised his family that their mutual journey would finally see closure by the end of the year. Richard had vowed to his ailing father during their last meeting that he would restore the family’s good name: He had promised his dad that he would do everything possible to remove the cloud over the family name and that he meant it from the bottom of his heart.
But, the forces of evil meant that he would fail to fulfill that solemn pledge. Ultimately, Richard Hirschfeld believed his legal plight was hopeless. He felt that he would never escape the wrath of the federal prosecutors from Virginia
“After all was said and done, and one spirit is broken by the reality of the circumstances, then the mind and heart soon follow that broken spirit,” said Richard Hirschfeld.
Before being captured in Florida in October 2004, Richard had spent more than two years living clandestinely in the United States, evading authorities trying to arrest him. He sometimes flew from his Florida home to Washington, DC to attend meetings with government officials waging the war on terror. He had several passports, sometimes traveling as Richard Marshall (which was his middle name) or Richard Thornton Halen.
He showed up at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000. The normally clean-shaven Hirschfeld sported a mustache and goatee when he met with an old friend from Virginia Beach, Edward S Garcia.
Hirschfeld’s family, friends and lawyers were mystified by his ability to gain access to the rich, famous and powerful, sometimes appearing unexpectedly in their presence.
In his suicide letter, he provided details of eight years on the run including his two years in Cuba where he befriended the longtime personal attorney of Fidel Castro. Hirschfeld and Ali had sought to free hostages in the Middle East in 1985 and were secretly sponsored by the federal government. Hirschfeld and Ali defied an order by then-Vice President George Bush by flying into Beirut, Lebanon instead of Syria.
The most astonishing claim of all is said to be contained in a classified report prepared by covert government operators for the Defense Department: Hirschfeld and his business associates reportedly supplied a surveillance system that helped the Pentagon locate Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Defense Department officials have not commented on the report or acknowledged its existence. But several people familiar with the report, including Hirschfeld Associates and a former CIA agent, confirmed that it had been prepared and sent to ranking intelligence officers, and Hirschfeld alludes to this in his suicide letter.
Government agents met with several influential people, including former Gov. Jim Gilmore of Virginia who was a fringe Presidential candidate in the most recent Republican primary. Agents had also met with Rev. Pat Robertson. However, both Gilmore and Robertson confirmed that the meetings took place but that they did not intercede on Hirschfeld’s behalf.
Until Hirschfeld killed himself, two very distinguished Washington lawyers were engaged in separate efforts to help him win relief from his legal problems.
C. Boyden Gray, chief White House counsel for former Pres. George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1993, had helped Hirschfeld draw up a petition for clemency, which was sent to the current President Bush. Hirschfeld hope for a presidential pardon. Gray reportedly delivered the document to Alberto R Gonzales in December when Gonzales was President Bush’s chief counsel.
Meanwhile a second influential lawyer named Jerris Leonard, was scheduled to speak with the Defense Department’s top legal officer about the possibility of having the criminal charges dropped. Leonard, a former assistant US attorney general during the Nixon administration, said he had been told by “credible sources” of the role Hirschfeld and his family and associates played in the war on terrorism, though he said he never learned details of the intelligence efforts.
But Leonard said one of the sources told him those services were so important that the Defense Department was willing to support the relief for Richard Hirschfeld. Such an effort might mean dismissal of the indictment.
One of the people Leonard approached was Thomas E Mooney Sr. staff director and general counsel for the House International Relations Committee. Mooney said his boss, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill was chairman of the committee and that he may have interceded on Hirschfeld’s behalf had Hirschfeld not committed suicide.
He stated that Hyde could have written a letter to the Justice Department asking for a review of this man’s case. He noted that descriptions of Hirschfeld’s activities in allegedly helping locate Saddam were fascinating and something that you would expect to see in a spy novel. Leonard estimated that he was approximately six weeks away from learning whether his efforts to obtain relief for Richard Hirschfeld would be successful when he took his life.
Leonard stated that this was the real tragedy. During an interview in his Washington law office, Leonard stated that Richard had many fine attributes and that he was a brilliant man and a fine lawyer. He was a real patriot for his country, but he was impatient and impulsive and he said some things that he should not have.
In the end, Hirschfeld seized control of his own destiny. He left his family instructions on how to bid him farewell, in a place far from the bustling capitols of commerce, congressional hearing rooms and others places where he had worked his magic. He even planned the music. His family gathered to say goodbye in a rural Virginia countryside. The members of the procession climbed a wooden fence and took each step with care, avoiding mud left by recent rain. Then they ascended the hill crowded by an ancient, solitary oak tree. His wife Loretta and their five sons were there along with his sister, mother, grandchildren, mother-in-law, father-in-law and an old friend from law school. They stood silently on a tarp that had been placed beneath the tree.
Eric C Milby carried a box containing Richard’s ashes. Richard’s elderly mother and father-in-law and mother-in-law road to the crest of the hill in an SUV from the nearby farmhouse that Richard and his wife Loretta shared in happier times. Tears flowed as Whitney Houston crooned the words from her famous song “I will always love you,”which was played from the speakers of the SUV.
This was the goodbye that Richard Hirschfeld had wanted. No funeral. No fuss. Family only — behind the farmhouse where he often returned after shadowy capers in distant lands.
As you read this, there is definitely a touch of melodrama in this story that is unmistakable. It is hard to separate fact from fiction since so much of what was going on with the international intrigue was impossible to verify completely. But when you have people like C. Boyden Gray working for you, the mere involvement of man of this stature lends extreme credibility to the story.
In the articles that follow, we hope lay out for you the demons that seemed to drive this man.