Missing Peace

Sit with them at their kitchen table and share a glass of ice water with Walter and Sheila Poirier. Sift through snapshots of their son while they tell you how the Peace Corps lost him. Lost their boy somewhere in the jungles of Bolivia, and never knew he was missing until Sheila called all the way from Lowell, 4,000 miles away, because it had been so long since she'd heard from him. That alone was painful enough, knowing so much time had passed when someone could have been looking for 22-year-old Wally. But the real agony came more than a month later.

That's when investigators traveled to Bolivia hoping to learn how a pasty-white, rosy-cheeked Irish American could disappear without a trace in a poor, Spanish-speaking South American country. There, they encountered Peace Corps officials who blamed everyone but themselves for their missing volunteer and one official who, according to investigators, lied about when Poirier was supposed to have met with his Bolivian counterpart.

He's gone now. Probably dead. As they sit here in their kitchen, Walter and Sheila Poirier don't know whom to believe anymore. Or what. They talk about their son in the present tense, as if he might walk up the steps of their split-level and through that front door any minute.

How long would you wait? It's been 28 days since you heard from your child. Sure, he's a grown man, and he's with the Peace Corps, and the last thing you want to do is baby him. But, still, 28 days.

“After we got an e-mail from him on January 31, I expected it would be maybe two or three weeks,” Sheila says now, sitting at her kitchen table. But when almost a month had passed, she decided that was long enough to remind Walter to stay in touch. On February 28, 2001, she sat down at her computer.

“Dear Walter, Are you okay? I'm getting to the point where I'm thinking of calling at least the house in La Paz. It is my assumption that you are at your site — possibly stranded because of road conditions. My worst fear is that you may be ill with some tropical disease. I know that with the lapse in time from your previous communication, this isn't a simple case of too busy to write. If we don't hear from you, I will call the house in La Paz this weekend.”

On Sunday, March 4, Sheila picked up the phone. She had heard about some flooding in Bolivia, so she called the group house in the capital city of La Paz where Walter occasionally stayed. The volunteers called it the “crash pad.”

“I'm trying to reach Walter Poirier,” Sheila told the volunteer who answered.

“We haven't seen him for a couple weeks.”

Sheila scribbled down the number of a Peace Corps 24-hour line. Bolivia is a huge country, the size of California and Texas combined, but, surely, she thought, if Walter were in trouble, someone would have contacted her. She didn't know the statistics — that six Peace Corps volunteers have been murdered worldwide in the last six years. All she knew was that her son had lost touch and she wanted to hear his voice. She reached an officer, who told her to sit tight. So she sat, for two days, until, finally, on March 6, Mary Gutman called from Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC.

“We're looking for him,” Gutman said.

Sometime this month, a report is scheduled to come out of the General Accounting Office, or GAO, outlining how the Peace Corps protects — or fails to protect — its 7,000 volunteers. If it's anything like a letter the GAO released on July 20, 2001, the Peace Corps isn't going to like it. That letter said Peace Corps officials in Bolivia “failed to properly supervise Mr. Poirier and lost track of him,” and, in an embarrassing aside, revealed that the Peace Corps learned its own volunteer was missing only because his mother called asking where he was.

The letter was especially critical of one man, Ryan Taylor, an associate director of the Peace Corps in Bolivia. According to the GAO, although he knew Poirier was not following location notification procedures, Taylor “took no steps to correct the situation.” The GAO also found that Poirier was not living where Taylor thought he was. Other Peace Corps officials said that it would have been Taylor's job to meet with Poirier if he wasn't following protocol. Of all the questions raised by the GAO, the most curious was why Taylor told the GAO that Poirier had missed a March 2 meeting with his project supervisor, even though the supervisor said no March 2 meeting had been scheduled. Taylor later said there had been a misunderstanding. When GAO investigators discovered this conflict, they called in the FBI to question Taylor, who then told the FBI (according to the GAO report) that he wanted to “deflect blame elsewhere because he felt responsible for not keeping a closer watch” on Walter Poirier. The admission sent Poirier's family into a rage, knowing that the same people to whom they had entrusted their son were refusing to even acknowledge what seemed obvious: They didn't know where Walter was living. They didn't know he was missing. The Peace Corps claims the GAO's report was inaccurate, noting that the GAO did not give the agency an opportunity to review the letter in advance, contrary to its standard procedures.

But one investigator who spoke on the condition that he not be identified dismisses theories that Poirier was caught in a mudslide or drowned. “I think Walter was murdered,” the official says. “I think he was ripped off. He'd left his backpack with all of his papers at his home. The volunteers we spoke with said they would never leave that.” A knife Poirier had recently bought was also never found.

Charna Lefton, Peace Corps training officer in Bolivia, says the agency is bringing back crews to search the Zongo Valley again. “There are leads coming in,” she says. “Every lead is being investigated. All of us want to find out what happened. The whole thing is a mystery.”

Yet while last summer's letter from the GAO made no charges of foul play or a cover-up, the Peace Corps was so angry it called the GAO report “flawed,” “damning,” and “irresponsible” and demanded that the letter be withdrawn, revised, or posted with a Peace Corps response. According to Poirier's father, one Peace Corps official went so far as to suggest his son probably just walked away from his job, maybe ran off with a woman. “Volunteer safety has always been our first priority and is taken very seriously,” the Peace Corps said in a letter. But the GAO would not back down. “We had a meeting with them on that,” says John Cooney, the GAO senior special agent who traveled to Bolivia and spent weeks investigating Poirier's disappearance. “We told them if we posted their letter, we'd have the right to rebut their claims. They said no.”

Given the findings in that first report, the second seems likely to be just as critical of the Peace Corps. Whether it will result in any changes is less certain, given that the Peace Corps has long steered its own ship, a government agency that is happy to take taxpayer money but determined to map its own course with as little scrutiny or input as possible. After all, who would criticize the Peace Corps?

After reaching a high of 15,560 volunteers in 1966, just five years after it was founded at the direction of President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps today has barely half that, many of them fresh out of college, wide-eyed, and idealistic. They get three months' training before being sent off to places like Ukraine, Mozambique, and the Ivory Coast without cell phones, pagers, or any other means that would help keep track of who is where. They are left without daily supervision to work with foreigners, teach English and health and nutrition, and build roads, schools, and housing. It's the volunteers' responsibility to check in — not the Peace Corps' responsibility to track them down. “We were surprised the Peace Corps had no system in place to reach out and touch someone,” Cooney says. “Or at least get a message to them.”

Matt Renaud, a friend of Poirier's from their days at Notre Dame who spent a year with the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan before being evacuated after September 11, says he went weeks without contacting his superiors. “I think it would be a good idea to have a requirement to get to a city every two weeks and check in,” he says.

But tightening that leash would go against the Peace Corps' approach, which encourages volunteers to solve their problems on their own. Trouble is, at least in Cooney's mind, that many of the volunteers are not exactly streetwise. “The kids are immature,” he says. “I suspect Walter was, too.”

His point: These aren't Green Berets going off into the wild. These are green American suburbanites. “We said to [Peace Corps officials] you could put a satellite tracker on these kids, or give them mobile phones,” Cooney says. “It's expensive, but there's got to be a way to keep track of them.”

Lefton says the Peace Corps is “continuously improving its procedures” but defends the agency's record. “In Bolivia our volunteers have access to radios or phones at their site or within a 30-minute walk so we can contact them or they can contact us.” But she concedes that volunteers aren't required to check in and the Peace Corps has no schedule for tracking them.

Poirier went into the Peace Corps after graduating from Notre Dame two years ago this spring with degrees in history and political science. “I often called him the great communicator,” his mother says with a soft smile, “because you got information in bits and pieces.” His parents work with numbers — mom at the IRS, dad as an assessor in Leominster — but that didn't interest him. He was president of his college dorm and made friends wherever he went. He worked with Habitat for Humanity, and in a home where college students and ex-convicts live together, and at a Chicago camp for inner-city youth.

When Poirier mentioned joining the Peace Corps for a tourism-development assignment in Bolivia, his parents weren't sure what to make of it. “Walter likes to build,” Sheila says. “I didn't see it as a good match for him.” But she wasn't nervous. “I saw going to the military as dangerous. I didn't see the Peace Corps as dangerous. It was a prestigious volunteer assignment.” But even the Peace Corps acknowledges on its Web site that “service does involve certain risks, including road accidents, natural disasters, crime, and civil unrest.”

Walter was wavering until one night on campus, when he bumped into a group of Bolivian students. “He took it as a sign,” says Sheila. A trip home was soon followed by a tearful goodbye at Logan Airport, and he was off to a country where 70 percent of the people live in poverty.

Walter's first letter home was upbeat. “He seemed happy,” Sheila says. “He had no complaints.” But it also became clear just how far he was from the lush lawns and ivy walls of Notre Dame and the comparative tranquility of Lowell. On October 4, he called home, harried. His group was being evacuated because of problems with illegal coca-leaf growers. “They were told they might be given two minutes to evacuate,” Sheila says. “They piled into a Jeep, and they put them up in a hotel.”

Poirier's work began soon after, helping people in the Zongo Valley find ways to make money from tourism. He was to mediate between the people of the valley and the civic leaders and politicians who controlled the purse strings. But as he discovered, it's hard to negotiate for money when there's little money to be spread around. According to Poirier's mother, he complained about Teresa Chavez, his Bolivian project supervisor, writing that his work was stalled and he couldn't get introductions to the people he needed. He also griped about the living conditions. The Peace Corps had qualms about his living in the Zongo Valley, the heart of his project, so he mostly traveled between the valley and the “crash pad” in La Paz. When he called home on January 15, his mother asked him where he'd be sleeping that night. “He said he didn't know, that he might set up a tent in this woman's backyard.”

It was the last time she heard his voice.

Walter Poirier's father leans back in his chair and clasps his hands behind his head. The bitterness builds as he talks. He's reached the point in the story where his son vanishes. It might be easier to discuss if the Peace Corps had reacted instantly, he says, by sending out a search party, posting fliers, calling in help from the States. Instead, the search of rivers, morgues, hospitals, and border crossings began only after senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry wrote a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Fifteen months later, Walter Poirier's parents still have so many questions.

Did he stumble upon some corruption in the government related to the funding for his project? In his last e-mail to Ryan Taylor on January 29, he talked about how the money for his project fell through and how the people in the valley are “extremely suspicious” of the government. “Everybody is puzzled,” Charna Lefton says. “We're all scratching our heads.”

The Poiriers haven't given up hope, but Sheila says the Peace Corps' recent increase in its reward from $10,000 to $25,000 may be “the last hurrah.”

Even if they do get some answers, and even if Walter's body is discovered, it still won't resolve what's angered them the most from the day Sheila called that 24-hour hotline — on March 4.

“He was last seen by Americans on January 30,” she says. “At what point were they going to say: 'Where's Walter?'”