Writers for the inevitable HBO miniseries about former Nissan Chairman and CEO Carlos Ghosn’s “Great Escape” from house arrest in Tokyo will have no shortage of material to draw from when they try to reconstruct what has become one of the most audacious and daring corporate capers in recent memory.
A slew of reports published over the weekend continued the drip-drip of salacious details from Ghosn’s high-wire clandestine flight across Japan and then across most of Asia via plane, all while stowed away in a hefty case meant to store audio equipment.
First, reports identified the team responsible for planning and executing Ghosn’s “extrication.” Both WSJ and Bloomberg pointed to Michael Taylor, an ex-Green Beret whose private security company has done work for the federal government, and private entities including the New York Times, ABC, Delta Air Lines and Disney on Ice.
Taylor has a somewhat checkered past. He spent a total of 19 months in prison (on a sentence of 24 months) after being indicted back in 2012 in two criminal cases stemming from a federal bid-rigging investigation involving a 24-year FBI veteran. Taylor and his firm were eventually indicted for contract fraud and money laundering after a grand jury investigation in Utah. Details are vague, but the Feds charged Taylor with bribing the agent. “Giving federal agents money is nothing new to Mr. Taylor,” said US prosecutor Maria Lerner at Taylor’s sentencing in 2015.
He vigorously disputed the case while imprisoned in a local Utah jail awaiting trial. He eventually pleaded guilty to both counts, even as some of his former clients wrote heart-wrenching letters to the judge overseeing the case, attesting to Taylor’s character.
One mother praised Taylor in writing to his sentencing judge for helping secure her abducted daughter’s release in Lebanon in 1997.
“I know that my connection with Michael was more than just a job,” the mother wrote. “His heart and soul guided him step by step to always do the right thing.”
In a separate, earlier incident, Taylor was indicted in Massachusetts on charges including illegal wiretapping. He eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.
Taylor’s firm was contracted for the job about three months ago, after Ghosn made the final decision to go ahead with the job. It’s unclear how, exactly, Taylor is connected to Ghosn, but both men share longstanding ties to Lebanon, along with a third man who was allegedly involved in the plot, and who allegedly traveled on the charter flight that ferried Ghosn out of Japan.
According to WSJ, that individual was George Zayek, a Lebanese-born American citizen who has worked with Taylor’s security company in the past. Zayek is the brother of Elias Zayek, one of the founders of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia in Lebanon. Elias was assassinated in 1990 just months before the end of the brutal, long-running Lebanese civil war. His brother George walks with a limp from an injury sustained during fighting in Lebanon during the 1970s.
The case that Ghosn was allegedly smuggled out of Japan inside.
Taylor also as a connection to Lebanon’s Christian community. He served in Lebanon back in the early 1980s as a Green Beret paratrooper. Taylor met his wife in Lebanon, and speaks fluent Arabic. Later, working as a private contractor, he helped train Lebanon’s Christian militias.
Back in 2012, Taylor traveled to Lebanon to work on a classified DEA operation that insiders have described as “one of the most important DEA Operations in history.” Taylor was described as a “key player” in the operation.
In 2009, Taylor’s former company (as it existed before his legal troubles) was approached by the New York Times about helping to rescue reporter David Rohde from Taliban captivity in Afghanistan. Taylor planned a “snatch and grab” operation to help rescue Rohde, but before he could pull it off, Rohde escaped on his own.
Rescuing kidnapping victims overseas has become something of a specialty for Taylor, and he has been contracted by the FBI and the State Department to rescue victims over the years.
Taylor managed to rebuild his business following his legal troubles after winning back $2 million of $5 million in company assets that were seized by federal authorities.
WSJ published a lengthy piece detailing the operation, while Bloomberg aggregate reports revealing small details of the operation that originally surfaced in the Lebanese press, like the fact that Ghosn’s 15-man extraction team used public transport to make the 300-mile sprint from Tokyo to Osaka before boarding the private jet that eventually carried Ghosn from Japan to Istanbul, then on to Beirut, where he finally landed at the Rafic Hariri International Airport.
WSJ revealed that during a trip to Osaka’s Kansai Airport a few months, Taylor noticed a critical security flaw in the airport terminal for chartered flights: The security equipment used to scan luggage was too small to X-Ray oversize luggage. This proved to be critical: The box that carried Ghosn (which had holes drilled in the bottom allowing him to breath during the trip) was not closely scrutinized by airport officials.
Ghosn surrendered his passport when he was arrested more than 13 months ago by Japanese police after landing in Tokyo. But he is a Lebanese citizen (he also carries Brazilian citizenship), and Lebanon doesn’t extradite its citizens.
Prior to his escape, Ghosn had said he intended to stay in Japan and fight the charges against him, though he did complain that he felt Japan’s justice system was rigged, and stacked unfairly against him.
For his supporters, the charges against Ghosn were never clear, and included failing to report income that actually wouldn’t be paid out in the form of a post-retirement bonus. Many suspect that his ouster was part of an internal vendetta organized by other senior executives, who had grown weary of Ghosn’s leadership. Before his arrest, Ghosn was revered in Japan and around the world for turning around Nissan, and was often seen as one of the world’s few rockstar CEOs.
Taylor reportedly told friends that he sympathized with Ghosn thanks to his own legal troubles, and even referred to the executive as a “hostage” of the Japanese government.
Japan, for what it’s worth, has defended its legal system. However, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Japan’s justice system has a 99% conviction rate, which some human-rights experts have criticized. In a statement released by Ghosn after his escape, he insisted that his family played no part in the operation, and accused Japan of “inhumane” treatment.
As we reported over the weekend, the private charter service that Ghosn’s extraction team hired for the mission is MNG Jet Havacilik AS, the mysterious global aircraft charter company that gained notoriety when it was implicated in media reports for helping to smuggle gold looted from Venezuela’s central bank out of the country, so that it could be illegally sold by the Maduro government for desperately needed cash.
In a statement, the company said its planes were illegally deployed by Taylor and his team, and that it wasn’t aware that Ghosn would be a passenger on the flight. It claimed that paperwork for the flight was deliberately falsified to mislead the company.
What happens next for Ghosn will remain is uncertain: Japan has extradition treaties with many countries, including the US, making it difficult for Ghosn to leave Lebanon. And while Ghosn is, for now, out of the reach of Japanese authorities, it’s possible that Tokyo could turn its sights on Taylor, and the rest of the team used to facilitate his escape. Turkey has already arrested the pilots of the plane used to transport Ghosn, and Japan requested an international arrest warrant for Ghosn via INTERPOL.
Ghosn is expected to speak publicly for the first time since his arrest later this week. Whatever happens next, we imagine it will be good.