Is this man responsible for the murders of 5 American nuns?

GARDNERSVILLE, Liberia — More than 20 years ago, a terrible crime bloodied this suburb of cinderblock homes, dirt-floor stores and lush green bush grass.

Five American nuns were killed when a vicious battle swept through the town during Liberia’s civil war. The killers left their bodies burned and broken, rotting in the sun.

The deaths were numerically insignificant in a conflict that by its end in 2003 had left hundreds of thousands of Liberians dead. But the killings crystallized the horror of Liberia’s long war for Westerners.

The Catholic Church, the U.S. Embassy and Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission all investigated. All came to a similar conclusion: The killers were soldiers in the army of Charles Taylor, the Liberian warlord convicted by an international court for crimes against humanity.

No killers,  however, have ever been brought to justice. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation eventually launched an investigation. But long delays by the agency and a steadfast reluctance by the Liberian government to prosecute those blamed for atrocities has meant that none of the suspects has ever faced trial, according to an examination by ProPublica and Frontline.

One of those implicated by reports on the killings is Christopher Vambo, a former Taylor commander who used the nom-de-guerre General Mosquito. He is not hard to find. He lives on a rutted street across from a local cemetery in an older part of Monrovia, the country’s capital. He works as a security guard for one of the country’s largest communications firms.

One hot, rainy day earlier this year, Vambo agreed to an interview — his first with American media outlets since being implicated in the sisters’ deaths.

He wanted to speak. But he feared the consequences.

“Christopher Vambo wasn’t the one that executed the Catholic nuns, but the Catholic nuns were executed under his command,” he said, referring to himself in the third person. “If there is charges for that, there’s a penalty for that.”

Faith in God and the fury of war defined the lives of the five sisters.

They were members of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ convent based in tiny Ruma, Ill. Most had spent years on mission in Liberia: instructing children, healing the sick, teaching their faith.

Sisters Barbara Ann Muttra, Shirley Kolmer, Kathleen McGuire, Agnes Mueller and Mary Joel Kolmer (a cousin to Shirley) lived, worked and prayed together at a small convent of cinder blocks painted white. It lay just off the main road that runs through Gardnersville, one of Monrovia’s outer suburbs.

Muttra, 69, was the best known. A nurse, she had spent 21 years working in Liberia. Her passion was working with mothers and children. She was a bulldog. She faced down soldiers and tendered care at remote clinics.

Shirley Kolmer, 61, was the leader of the group. She was well known among Monrovia’s upper middle class. Grinning and gap-toothed, the math teacher served as the first female principal of St. Patrick’s High School, an elite all-boy’s school in a tony neighborhood of Monrovia. McGuire, 54, the newest arrival, taught there, too. She also supervised a local Catholic grammar school.

Mueller, 62, taught local women to read and worked at a nearby health clinic. Joel Kolmer, 58, taught at the grammar school and mentored young Liberians interested in entering the order.

“These kinds of people must be celebrated,” said Kofi Woods, a Liberian human rights leader who knew the sisters.

This account of the lives and deaths of the nuns draws on reports by the Catholic diocese, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the St. Louis Post Dispatch; a book written shortly after the killings by Sister M. Clare Boehmer called Echoes in our Hearts; confidential transcripts of eyewitness testimony; and interviews with current members of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, Liberians who knew the sisters, U.S. State Department officials, former Taylor fighters and Vambo.

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