By Jacy Marmaduke
There are two stories about the night a decorated ex-Green Beret shot a mild-mannered Libyan graduate student twice in the head and ran, the night a woman’s terrified screams pierced a silent Fort Collins apartment complex and FBI agents rushed to a humble college town of 65,000.
That was Oct. 14, 1980. The people who know the truth are long gone.
But whispers persist today about what really happened that night, when Fort Collins earned the global spotlight and cemented a page in history books for the undercover crime with international overtones and the dramatic trial that followed, when TV cameras, armed guards and bomb squads flocked to our county courthouse.
No matter how many years pass, our city will forever remain entangled in a web of suspected government corruption and international espionage.
Through interviews, public records and a months-long search of newspaper reports the world over, the Coloradoan uncovered a start-to-finish account of one of the most notorious crimes in Fort Collins history, including details never before reported.
There are two sides of this story. It’s up to you, the reader, to decide which version is the truth.
Faisal Zagallai was a 35-year-old Colorado State University graduate student from Libya who’d dared to leave his home country and speak out against a formidable dictator.
Or he was a dissident plotting a coup to overthrow Muammar Gaddaf, crafting radio broadcasts to endanger the unsteady détente between Egypt and Israel.
Eugene Tafoya was a three-time Purple Heart recipient who went to Zagallai’s South Shields apartment that night on orders from the CIA, planning to threaten Zagallai, maybe rough him up a little bit, leave him scared and subdued.
Or he knocked on the door of apartment G-8 with a plan to commit murder.
‘Physical liquidation is the final stage’
Ray Martinez, the on-duty detective that night, was patrolling Fort Collins in his police cruiser about 7:30 p.m. when a familiar name rang out from the radio.
Faisal Zagallai. Wasn’t he the Libyan student who’d come to police six months earlier, asking for a concealed carry permit because his life was in danger?
Wasn’t he the guy supposedly on Gaddafi’s hit list?
When Martinez pulled up to 1917 S. Shields St., chaos reigned.
Zagallai was bleeding from the head, collapsed in the doorway of his apartment near the CSU campus as medics strapped him on a stretcher and loaded him in an ambulance. Furniture was strewn about the living room and blood stained the carpet and door frame.
The first .22 caliber bullet entered Zagalla’s head, circled his cranium and severed the optic nerve in his right eye before lodging in the roof of his mouth. The second tore through his left ear and cheek.
If he survived, it would be a miracle.
The man who shot him was already lost in the darkness, but the shots he fired lit up the airwaves.
The English-language broadcast assigning credit for the attack to a Libyan nationalist group came just days later. It was part gloating triumph, part chilling warning.
“… In affirmation of the fact that physical liquidation is the final stage in the revolutionary conflict dialogue … a member of the World Revolutionary Committee tried to liquidate one Faisal Zagallai …“
The job interview
While her husband lay unconscious on the operating table at Poudre Valley Hospital, Farida Zagallai was at the police station, recounting the last few days in a low, smooth voice with the melodic lilt of her native Arabic tongue.
The truth was, Farida and Faisal — the children of prominent Libyan families, darlings of the state and government scholarship recipients who’d lived in the U.S. for close to a decade — were broke.
They’d lost their scholarships thanks to Gaddafi, who pulled the plug in 1979. That was three years after he promised “physical liquidation” of Libyans living overseas who wouldn’t return home and two years after he personally presided over the first of many public hangings of Libyan dissidents.
The Zagallais were no longer the golden children of Libya. Faisal reportedly led demonstrations of masked Libyans on American soil and founded a secret organization of Libyan students promoting a new society free of government control.
But political liberation had at least one unwanted consequence: The Zagallais were desperate for money, scraping by with odd jobs and help from family.
So when a strange woman called their home on Oct. 13, offering the couple an interview for jobs as interpreters for an insurance company, Faisal agreed. The call didn’t strike him as particularly strange — foreign students constantly received calls from companies looking for cheap translation labor.
The interviewer knocked on the door of apartment G-8 the next evening, 15 minutes late. He was middle-aged, about average height and husky, his blondish hair balding at the crown and his cheeks pockmarked. He had one crooked ring finger and wore jewelry and a clip-on necktie.
He was Eugene Tafoya, and Farida Zagallai would not forget his face.
He sat on the couch with Faisal, talking about the job prospect for 10 minutes. It was strange. He couldn’t seem to come up with any traditional interview questions. His breath reeked of alcohol. The conversation quickly grew awkward, and Farida offered to get the stranger something to drink.
She was in the kitchen pouring a glass of orange juice when her husband yelled out to her in Arabic.
“Farida, Farida, it’s him, it’s him!”
Then she heard gunshots.
She raced to the bedroom, locked the door behind her and began screaming for help, pounding on the window so hard she broke the glass.
“I felt that he killed my husband and he was coming to kill me,” she later testified.
As her husband’s emergency surgery stretched on, Farida described the man who’d left her husband for dead to Craig Pursley, an art teacher who did side work drawing suspect composites for a dozen law enforcement agencies.
Back at the apartment, Martinez had found another witness.
Marti Jarmin was an athletic 24-year-old woman who lived next door to the Zagallais. She’d heard the commotion and darted outside, chasing the stranger out into the parking lot until words of warning sounded in the darkness.
“Watch out, he’s got a gun!”
Police officers combed the apartment complex, searching for a cigarette butt, a piece of trash, a trace of blood — anything would do. Their search turned up little: a clip-on tie and some bullet fragments. Farida told Martinez that Tafoya carried a silver and blue handgun. It fit the description of a Saturday night special, a compact and inexpensive weapon often used by an organized crime hitman.
The next day, detectives went to Denver’s now-decommissioned Stapleton International Airport, circulating the composite sketch of Tafoya in the hope that someone would recognize him. One person did: a shuttle bus driver who’d dropped Tafoya off at Braniff Airways, a now-defunct American airline.
The FBI, now involved in the investigation, checked out every man who departed on a Braniff flight that night. They found no promising suspects.
That soon became a theme, as Fort Collins police spent months chasing fruitless leads.
They collected finger prints from the apartment, checked guest lists of every area motel, interviewed Zagallai’s professors, neighbors and friends. They even called in a ballistics expert to examine X-rays of Zagallai’s skull for clues. They tapped Poudre Valley Hospital’s phone lines after a man called the hospital, asked whether Zagallai was dead, then cursed and hung up when asked who he was.
FBI agents visited more than 1,000 stores across the country that had sold the clip-on tie found at the crime scene. No one recognized the man in Pursley’s sketch.
With little evidence and waning leads, Martinez, who would later become Fort Collins mayor and now sits on City Council, was the sole detective on the case by late November. But he had one thing on his side.
Miraculously, Faisal was alive. And he remembered everything.
In a hospital room guarded by police officers, the man told Martinez his version of the events that left him permanently blind in his right eye but otherwise recovering.
The recruiter seemed nervous and was no genius, he recalled, but he’d behaved normally enough until Farida left the room. Suddenly, the bumbling stranger stood up and began striking him with rapid-fire karate blows. Faisal raised his hands to his head to protect himself, and during the struggle, he saw Tafoya reach for a gun hidden under his coat.
During the fight, Faisal groped under the couch cushion for his own gun, a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol he’d hidden there in a fit of suspicion before the meeting. But he couldn’t reach it.
“He came after me and I tried to get hold of him,” Zagallai later testified. “I felt I was shot in my head and I felt the blood, but I kept struggling with him, trying to keep close to him so I could take his gun. We struggled from one end of the apartment to another.”
Martinez suspected international espionage because of Zagallai’s Libyan connections, but the FBI wouldn’t tell him anything of value. As he delved deeper into the case, he was admonished by federal agencies, denied information and started getting threatening phone calls telling him to back off. The FBI even tried to get him fired from the police department for investigating the case’s international ties without the agency’s consent.
“They called it classified (information),” Martinez recalled. “Really it was information they didn’t want out because it was gonna make them look bad, it was gonna make the CIA office look bad.”
The case went cold until February, when two teenage boys found the answer to Martinez’s dry spell lying in an irrigation ditch off West Horsetooth Road.
It was a .22 caliber magnum handgun, silver and blue and covered in rust.
The FBI traced the gun to Tully Francis Strong, a short, amiable, retired dog warden who lived in a trailer park in the Florida Keys. He’d bought the gun at a pawn shop and sold it to his old friend from the military. Eugene Tafoya.
Tafoya, 48, had enlisted in the military when he was 15 to fight in Korea and was awarded at least three Purple Hearts during two tours as a Green Beret in Vietnam. He’d been in special operations for more than 20 years. Police didn’t have much else on him — but they had a mugshot. Albuquerque, New Mexico, police had arrested a Eugene Tafoya for drunk and disorderly conduct.
Faisal and Farida instantly recognized the man in the mugshot.
So Martinez trekked to Tafoya’s modest, mustard-colored home in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, armed with a bomb squad, a search warrant and an affidavit for his arrest. The team arranged to have Tafoya’s electricity turned off to lure him from the house. When he came out, Martinez’s glance lowered to his hand.
His left ring finger was crooked, just like Farida described.
That wasn’t the only clue at his house.
They found the jewelry and clothes Farida remembered. They found receipts from a two-night stay at the Holiday Inn in Fort Collins. They found hand-drawn maps of the Zagallai’s apartment complex, a blue plastic folder full of Libyan money and cassette tapes of phone conversations about organized hits.
“Do you know someone who should quit breathing?” said a man’s voice on one of the tapes. “Permanently?”
Threat gone wrong?
While Tafoya sat in solitary confinement in a Larimer County Jail cell, the man he blamed for everything was 6,000 miles away, living the high life in a seaside villa in Tripoli, Libya.
Edwin Wilson, a square-jawed, heavy-browed millionaire tycoon, once worked as a spy for the CIA. He grew rich off the shell businesses he used to gain intelligence. No one really knew who he worked for.
Years later, when Wilson was sentenced to 52 years in prison for smuggling 20 tons of powerful explosives from Houston to Libya, training terrorist cells and arranging assassinations for Gaddafi, he told authorities he’d cozied up to the dictator only to dig up sought-after scoop for the CIA.
Wilson, Tafoya later testified, had hired the ex-Green Beret to threaten Zagallai. Not to kill him.
This became the beating heart of Tafoya’s defense, led by top-rung Denver lawyers Walter Gerash and Scott Robinson: The two bullets Tafoya put in Zagallai’s head were an act of self-defense. He was in Fort Collins that night out of service to his country.
Gerash and Robinson were a near-unstoppable duo that got an acquittal for former Denver police officer James King in Denver’s notorious “Father’s Day Massacre” and a “not guilty” verdict for Iranian Afshin Shariati, who shot three people who came to his home to harass him. Gerash is now retired; Robinson continues to practice and serves as a legal analyst for 9News.
The trial lasted four weeks at the old Larimer County courthouse. After two unsubstantiated bomb threats and one pesky rumor that Wilson’s men were going to spring Tafoya out of jail, officials outfitted the courtroom entrance with a metal detector, ordered 8th Judicial District Attorney Stu VanMeveren to wear a bulletproof vest and stationed a Rottweiler and snipers on the building’s roof.
Every day, Courtroom No. 5 was filled to capacity with international journalists, lawyers and spectators.
“The majority of potential jurors came into the case believing he was guilty,” Robinson recalled this fall from his Denver office. “There had been overwhelming publicity about the nature of the crime, the helplessness of Zagallai, his combat background. He didn’t come to trial as Mr. Popular, that’s for sure.”
Pick a word to describe Tafoya: Stoic. Garrulous. Calculating. Stupid. Attorneys, witnesses and newspaper clippings used them all.
The details of Tafoya’s persona and history are so muddled that it’s not even clear when he was born. His birth certificate reads Feb. 28. 1933, but he later swore he fudged the date by three years so he could enlist in the National Guard as a minor.
The son of a 33-year New Mexico State Police veteran, Tafoya dropped out of high school in Truth or Consequences to begin a lengthy, disjointed career in the armed forces. He served in the National Guard and the Marines before signing up as a Green Beret in Vietnam and Korea.
He reportedly risked his life to pull two comrades under fire to safety during in Vietnam during the siege of Plei Me. At the time, he kept a small American flag in his pocket, explaining to a fellow Green Beret, “If I’m going to get zapped, I’d rather be zapped under the American flag.”
Strong — the veteran who sold Tafoya the gun he used to shoot Zagallai — told an Albuquerque Journal profiler that Tafoya was “depressed” about returning to civilian life in 1976.
Tafoya told him he’d applied for a CIA job but was rejected. So he returned to his hometown, married an old acquaintance from high school and took construction jobs.
“Gene was a good soldier,” Strong recalled in the Journal article. “He had to have been to survive in Vietnam. But soldiering was all Gene really knew.”
By some accounts, Tafoya resorted to freelance CIA work after the agency wouldn’t take him on full-time. When police searched his home, they found evidence connecting him not only to the Zagallai shooting but also to a 1979 car-bombing in Kitchener, Ontario.
That attack, too, was thought to be a bungled murder attempt tied to Wilson.
Tafoya’s tendency to record his phone conversations and hold on to receipts and other mementos was probably because he expected Wilson to reimburse him for his expenses, but it sure didn’t help him in court.
One thing did help him: He made an excellent witness. And that’s high praise coming from Robinson, a seasoned defense attorney who admits he never liked Tafoya.
The man answered questions directly. He never paused before answering; never minced words; never “danced” with the prosecutor, as Robinson calls it. Never followed a “yes” with a “but” — the cardinal sin of witnesses.
And most importantly, he truly seemed to believe the story he told the jury: Wilson hired him to “deliver a message” to Zagallai. He chatted with the Libyan dissident for 10 or 15 minutes, and when his wife left the room he leaned in close.
“You’ve been making and preparing broadcasts to the Middle East about things that are upsetting détente.”
”He got the message and just erupted,” Tafoya testified. ”He started yelling and everything broke loose before I finished. He was yelling in Arabic. I tried to calm him down but he just kept yelling, and I heard glass breaking and his wife yelling in another room.”
Tafoya saw Zagallai yank a pistol from beneath the couch cushion, and the two men struggled. Then Tafoya’s gun went off, Zagallai fell to the floor, and the ex-Green Beret darted into the night.
So strong was Tafoya’s conviction that his attorneys couldn’t help but believe him, too. Gerash, famous for making a scene in the courtroom, wore a green beret every day of the trial and showed the jury photos of Tafoya wearing all his medals.
Reading aloud one of Tafoya’s Army commendations, Gerash broke down and cried.
Tafoya never did.
“He felt betrayed,” Robinson said. “But he also was stoic about it. Maybe that sounds contradictory, but I think it kind of goes with the territory. If you do special ops in Vietnam and things go bad, they’re not gonna rush to say, ‘Hey, he’s ours.’ It was the same thing here. I think he realized that he screwed up the mission. He wasn’t surprised.”
Still. Gerash and Robinson wanted to prove the CIA had been involved in the shooting, so they subpoenaed two agents for Robinson to question.
Robinson spent hours preparing for those cross-examinations, researching the CIA and Libya and carefully crafting questions that would be difficult for them to wriggle out of.
But the men answered query after query with the same stiff, packaged reply: “That’s outside my area of knowledge.”
“What you’re really saying when you say that is, ‘That’s classified,’ is that true?” Robinson finally asked one of the men.
“And he said, ‘Yes,’” Robinson recalled. “So we were in business. Right then and there, the jury knew there was some CIA involvement. Whether Tafoya’s story was true, that was up to them to decide.”
Robinson considers that the defense’s big “eureka” moment — that and their introduction of lesser charges for the jury to deliberate.
After four days of deliberation, the jury settled on a couple of those lesser charges: Third-degree assault and conspiracy to commit assault.
Two misdemeanors for a man charged with attempted murder.
Robinson and Gerash were overjoyed.
“This wasn’t justice,” Zagallai reportedly cried when he heard the verdict, slamming his fist against the courtroom wall.
“I think there is some hidden hand behind this whole goddamned trial,” he told a ring of reporters outside the courtroom. “I think the decision was prejudiced … This is supposed to be a system that fights terrorism. This invites terrorism.”
Faisal and Farida Zagallai leave the old Larimer County Courthouse during the 1981 trial of Eugene Tafoya. (Photo: Coloradoan file photo)
Tafoya wasn’t happy either.
Two-and-a-half hours after the verdict was announced, he walked out of the Larimer County Jail a free man — for now. His sister secured his $10,000 appeal bond with a cashier’s check.
Speaking to a swarm of reporters, he said in a voice barely above a whisper that the verdict “could have been worse.”
He declined to elaborate on Robinson’s comments that the CIA had left him “holding the bag.”
Wracked with legal fees, Tafoya returned to his mustard-colored house in Truth or Consequences while he waited out the appeals process. He told the Associated Press he was looking for a collaborator on a book or movie script about his experiences.
“I’m in debt at least until the year 2000,” he said in January 1982. “At my income, I’ll probably pass on the debts to my grandchildren.”
His appeal failed. So did his attempt to sue Larimer County Sheriff Jim Black for more than $35 million over alleged mistreatment. A year later, he was arrested in El Paso in connection to the Canada car bombing.
He spent the next six years on trial, in prison or both for the Fort Collins shooting, the Canada car-bombing and tax evasion — he never paid taxes for the $8,600 Wilson paid him to take care of Zagallai, prosecutors alleged.
In March 1989, Tafoya finished his final prison sentence and returned to El Paso broke and dejected.
He died there on June 22, 1997. He was 62 — or 65. He’s buried at the Fort Bliss National Cemetery alongside tens of thousands of U.S. military veterans and their spouses.
Nobody interviewed for this article knows where Faisal Zagallai ended up. Go ahead, Google him — you’ll find nothing recent.
At some point after the trial, Farida Zagallai left the U.S. for the Middle East, where she’s held several high-profile positions in the United Nations and national government organizations. She couldn’t be reached for comment on this story, and it’s unclear if she’s still married to Faisal, or if he’s still alive.
The Libyans who remained in Fort Collins lived changed lives — lives tinged with fear. Libyan students at CSU told the Coloradoan in 1981 that for months after the shooting they were afraid to fall asleep each night, answer the door or pick up the telephone.
“Every time I open a door I am afraid I will face a man with a gun,” one Libyan told the Coloradoan on condition of anonymity.
Libyans all over the country were scared because they didn’t “believe the cold hand could reach them,” Evan Vlachos, then-director of the CSU sociology department, told the Coloradoan after the shooting.
“It is hard for Americans to understand,” Vlachos continued. “They have no law in Libya. The revolutionary committees are above reproach. They could go into a home tomorrow and kill someone and no one could do anything about it. The people are ruled by revolutionary thugs and a maniac.”
At least one person remained optimistic.
Three months after Eugene Tafoya shot Faisal Zagallai and left him for dead, a reporter asked Zagallai why he thought Libya had chosen him.
The sociology student, half-blind and scarred, shrugged and said he guessed his turn was first.
“Opposition to Gaddafi is growing large,” Zagallai said of the deposed leader who died in 2011. “Maybe he thought this was one way to cool things, to randomly pick someone. He may have scared some for a while.
“But after a while, it becomes better to be dead than to live in fear.”
Jacy Marmaduke – Reports on environmental issues for the Coloradoan. She is a native Taxan and 2015 University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate.