WikiLeaks cable: Teo Peter Case Could Prejudice Relations Between the U.S. and Romania

Mihai-Silviu Chirila

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The WikiLeaks phenomenon is felt all over the world where U.S. diplomats sent different notes back home to the American State Department, depicting corruption in the societies of the countries where they were stationed, or different habits of the leaders in power, not to mention political wicked games behind scenes their players never thought would go public.

One by one, world leaders read the opinion of the American diplomats on them in the pages published by the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks, whose founder Julian Assange is bearing the brunt of his daring idea of unveiling the deepest secrets of the world.

Russia’s Putin found out that the American diplomats thought about his reign that was one of corruption and arbitrary; former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd found out he was seen as a “control freak;” the President of France found out via WikiLeaks that he has a rather negative image in the eyes of the American diplomats.

The world found out that China was ready to give up North Korea and accept a reunification of the two parts of the same nation; that India has a plan to counter-attack if Pakistan attacks first; that NATO had a plan to protect nations near the Russian border against a possible attack coming from the eastern military super power; and so on.

The scandal became so big that the U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton had to apologize for the leak of the cables, an “accident” that has already been labeled as “Cablegate.”

Political matters, however, are not the only ones recorded and told by the documents on WikiLeaks.

Thus, one cable sent by the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, Romania, gives an insight into one of the most sensible moments in the mutual relations between the United States of America and its new military, political and strategic ally, Romania, the largest country in the South-Eastern Europe among those who are members of NATO and the European Union.

On December 4, 2004, at the crack of dawn, an allegedly drunken American employee of the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, Christopher VanGoethem, ran over the taxi cab that was taking home Teo Peter, one of the most renowned rock stars in Romania, member of a rock band called Compact, that won the hearts of generations after generations of Romanian music lovers.

As a result of the accident, Teo Peter died instantaneously, and the American perpetrator was taken out of the country in a diplomatic flight, the then U.S. Ambassador to Romania taking advantage of the mutual agreement signed by the two countries that was stipulating the right of the United States to have its citizens that committed crimes on Romanian territory judged by the American law system.

Christopher VanGoethem, at the time of the accident commander of the Marine security detachment at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, was pulled out of Romania and appeared before seven-member martial court in February 2006.

He was found not guilty of one of the major accusations brought against him, that of homicide (the other being adultery), and guilty of two less important charges: obstruction of justice and making false statements.

At the end of the trial he received a letter of reprimand, and got away with murder because the defense was able to prove that the intersection where the accident occurred was “chaotic and nonsensically signed.”

Since he had refused to be tested for alcoholemy, invoking diplomatic immunity, the allegation that he had been drunk at the time held no water in court and was considered unsubstantial by the jury, as well as that of fatigue, on which prosecution attempted to build the murder case.

Later on, after the sentence was pronounced, American jurists told the Romanian media that the case was easy to win by the defense because the Romanian part had not prepared it properly, giving the defense ways to make their own case.

In fact, the defense was able to demonstrate at the time the accident occurred Teo Peter wasn’t even in the car that was hit and probably died of other causes.

The death of the Romanian rock star sparked a very strong anger wave in Romania, otherwise a country with a clear pro-American sentiment.

The pain of losing one of the most beloved singers in the country was overlapped by the humiliation of seeing the perpetrator getting away with it.

When the verdict came in 2006, another wave of frustration engulfed the Romanian public, the general feeling being that the old ways were back, when the Soviet soldiers and commissioners were allowed to commit all sort of atrocities on the national territory of the occupied countries, one of which was for almost two decades Romania.

The fear that the Teo Peter case would have a very bad influence on the relations that were consolidating between the United States and Romania was voiced by the American diplomats working in Bucharest.

Thus, in the secret cable published by WikiLeaks and by the online edition of The Guardian the U.S. diplomats said back in 2007 that the way the case was handled had a bad influence on the mutual relations.

The diplomats added that if the word got out that the United States government met the demand of Peter’s family for millions of dollars in compensation by a counteroffer of merely $80,000, the political leaders of the country would have a very emotional reaction to this (the word got out and the Romanian political leaders dodged, but the general public was very angry and it took a lot of explaining of the mechanisms of American justice and some disclosure of the incompetence of the Romanian diplomacy who was not able to defend their citizen in court to calm people down and have the pro-American feelings restored, though not at the intensity it used to have before).

The diplomats also said that the president of Romania would stand by the family of Teo Peter on this (which was not entirely accurate in any sense), but that the forces who wanted Romania to withdraw from Iraq would seize the opportunity to make their case against the Americans.

The cable also reminds that in the past (that is between 2004 and 2007) anti-American meetings had been held on December 4 in Romania on the occasion of Peter’s death commemoration.

There were even conspiracy theories going on in Romania at the time, according to which the man behind the wheel of the car that killed Peter was ambassador J.D. Crouch‘s son, and that VanGoethem merely took the blame on himself. They were never proved one way or another, so they remained mere speculations, though vividly sustained by a leader of an opposition parliamentary party.

Those anti-American demonstrations were not anywhere close to the ones in other parts of the world where the Star Spangled Banner is being burnt, and it would seem that Romanians have come to terms with this, since no such protests were staged over the past few years.

That does not mean that Romanians forgot Teo Peter, or Ch. VanGoethem for that matter.11

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