The Green Beret ex-con who allegedly helped Carlos Ghosn escape
As a member of the US Army’s elite Green Berets he was trained to make daring parachute jumps behind enemy lines. As a security contractor he boasted deep experience across the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon, and had overseen high-stakes kidnapping rescues. He had also served time in prison for a bribery scheme involving $54m in US defence department contracts.
In others words, Mike Taylor appeared to have the right skills to help pluck Carlos Ghosn, the former Nissan chief executive, from Japan, where he was embroiled in criminal proceedings, and spirit him to his native Lebanon.
Mr Taylor’s purported handiwork as the orchestrator of Mr Ghosn’s daring escape has emerged in recent days, inspiring a sense of awe and wonder around the world at an episode that played out like a James Bond film.
It began, according to Japanese media reports, with a 300-mile trip aboard the country’s famous bullet train from Tokyo to an airport in Osaka whose security procedures had a soft underbelly. Mr Ghosn was then loaded into a packing case typically used for musical equipment to avoid passport controls. From there he departed on a private jet, arriving in Turkey, where he swiftly climbed aboard another private plane bound for Beirut.
Mr Taylor, 59, who transformed a military career into a series of private security businesses, did not respond to requests for comment.
But he reportedly spoke publicly for the first time about the fugitive businessman in an interview with a news site for US military veterans, published late on Monday.
The site, Connecting Vets, said that Mr Taylor had declined to speak on the record about the extraction of Mr Ghosn from Japan and whether or not he was involved.
It quoted him as saying: “The bottom line is this guy was a damn hostage that’s what it was. If he popped out of North Korea or China it would be a totally different narrative.”
Prior to the Ghosn escape, Mr Taylor had been toiling to rebuild his security career after his criminal conviction while also hustling for cash. He launched a sports performance drink called Vitamin1.
In a recent promotional blitz, Mr Taylor touted Vitamin1 as the official sports drink of the American football camp run by Rob Gronkowski, the former New England Patriots star.
Born in Staten Island, New York, Mr Taylor endured an itinerant childhood. After high school in Massachusetts, he followed his stepfather into the army, quickly moving into special forces.
His cold war-era speciality was known as “special atomic demolition munition”. He and other operatives were trained to jump from planes at high altitudes, deploying their parachutes only at the last instant. Their mission was to detonate portable nuclear weapons in Germany’s Fulda Gap in the event of a Soviet invasion.
A turning point in Mr Taylor’s life came in the early 1980s. He was dispatched to Lebanon to assist Christian militias after the assassination in 1982 of the country’s president-elect, Bachir Gemayel, and the Israeli invasion.
“It was through this work that Mr Taylor would begin a life-long relationship with Lebanon’s Christian community,” his attorney wrote in a memorandum arguing for a lenient prison sentence.
Mr Taylor left the army the next year but returned to Lebanon to work as a private security contractor, helping to train Christian forces. He learnt Arabic, and also courted Lamia Abboud, whom he married in 1985.
Lebanon also appears to be where he met George Zayek, a man who would work for Mr Taylor’s security companies in the Middle East and was, according to authorities, also involved in Mr Ghosn’s escape.
Mr Taylor and his wife returned to America and settled in a four-bedroom house in the rustic town of Harvard, Massachusetts. According to his lawyers, he used his experience to work as an undercover agent helping the US Drug Enforcement Agency, and others, to bust drug and counterfeiting operations back in Lebanon.
In 1994, Mr Taylor finally went into business for himself, founding the American International Security Corporation. It took on a mixture of government and private clients, including ABC, 20th Century Fox and Signature Flight Support, a service provider for private aircraft.
The New York Times Company hired Mr Taylor when one of its reporters, David Rohde, was taken captive in Afghanistan.
“They . . . set up an ‘emergency room’. They had a whiteboard. They were trying to negotiate,” said a person who closely followed the efforts to free the journalist, his fixer and driver. “I don’t think the phone ever rang.”
“They didn’t have a particularly accurate understanding of that particular country [Afghanistan]. But they were obviously pretty respected. For The New York Times to hire them they must have had the pedigree.”
Mr Rohde ended up escaping on his own in 2009.
But in another emergency, Mr Taylor played the hero. A North Carolina family hired Mr Taylor in 1999 after a rival security consultant had bungled an attempt to extract their daughter and her three children from Lebanon. The woman, Lucy Kolb Zantout, was trying to flee her Lebanese husband, who had become abusive, she said, and blocked her passport.
The first contractor managed to smuggle them into Syria, according to a legal case later filed by the Kolbs. This only worsened their plight since they were in the country illegally and at risk of being sent back to Lebanon. He could get them no further.
Enter Mr Taylor, who worked his contacts on both sides of the border. He eventually managed to get Lucy Kolb and her children arrested at the Lebanese border by Syrian police, sent back to Damascus for legal proceedings, and then remanded to a third country. They paid a $4 fine and were on a plane the next day to the US. Mr Taylor also rescued the other contractor. His fee: $155,000.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan appeared to be a particularly rich source of work for Mr Taylor. AISC’s assignments ranged from training commandos to guarding infrastructure in southern Iraq and even protecting officials investigating mass graves there for possible war crimes. Mr Taylor brought in Lebanese Christians to help, according to a former colleague.
It was an Afghan assignment that led to Mr Taylor’s downfall. According to federal prosecutors in Utah, he was given advance notice by an old friend from the special forces about an urgent contract request to train Afghan soldiers to manage their supplies.
Relying on confidential information, AISC tweaked its submission and ended up winning a relatively small contract that would eventually swell to $54m in billings. Some of the money was kicked back to Mr Taylor’s associates, according to prosecutors. When federal agents caught wind of the scheme, Mr Taylor sought to bribe an FBI agent to thwart their investigation.
At one point, he emailed his accomplices: “I will make you guys more money than you can believe provided they don’t think I’m a bad guy and put me in jail.”
Mr Taylor eventually pleaded guilty to one count of violating procurement laws and one count of wire fraud. He was sentenced to 24 months in prison but was released after 14 months.
Letters written to the court on Mr Taylor’s behalf by friends and colleagues portray a committed family man who coached youth football, looked after his ailing stepfather and cleared snow from neighbours’ drives without ever being asked.
They also give glimpses into his daring work. “In one particular instance we were engaged by armed criminals who sought to take us hostage,” a former colleague, Robert Rubin, wrote of a security assignment in the Middle East. “In that instance, Mr Taylor was smart, decisive and thoughtful in his direction of the team that caused a very dangerous situation to end safely without any loss of life.”
A mother attested to Mr Taylor’s commitment after he helped secure her daughter’s release four-and-a-half years after her father kidnapped her and brought her to Lebanon.
But, in a sentencing hearing, prosecutors pushed back against the narrative of Mr Taylor as an honest patriot. They argued that he had sought to shift the blame on to his accomplices in an effort to save himself. They had — mockingly — begun to refer to him as “Captain America”, one prosecutor, Maria Lerner, noted.
Ms Lerner also pointed to past cases in Massachusetts where Mr Taylor had been indicted on charges of illegal wiretapping and filing a false police report — and found to be paying off a federal agent to avoid possible labour racketeering charges.
“In other words, giving money to federal agents is nothing new to Mr Taylor,” Ms Lerner observed.
Mr Taylor’s finances were crushed by his legal troubles, with AISC’s revenue falling by more than 70 per cent in 2012 to just over $600,000. That, in part, appears to have led him into the sports drink business.
As Mr Ghosn’s escape draws attention to his exploits in Japan and Lebanon, he may have other talents to hawk — particularly for any deep-pocketed executives caught in a legal jam.