Searching for Answers
The Cousin of a US National Killed by
the Khmer Rouge Seeks Closure in Cambodia
By Ian Neubauer
The Cambodia Daily
Picture this. A family member perhaps your closest is kidnapped, tortured
and senselessly executed by a group of foreign extremists. More than a
quarter of a century passes and, despite your best efforts, you know next to
nothing about the circumstances of their disappearance or the location
of their remains.
US-national Don Bittner does not have to imagine this scenario. He's been
living it ever since he picked up a copy of Life magazine in early 1980 and
read with disbelief that his cousin and best
friend Lance McNamara had been killed by the Khmer Rouge.
Since then, Bittner has visited Cambodia twice, hoping to find answers to
the events that proceeded his cousin's disappearance in 1978.
"Lance was a god in my eyes," says Bittner, now 51. "He was the funniest,
creative person I have ever met. He picked me up when my father died and
showed me how to live again. I owe him so, so much."
To add to the tragedy, Bittner did not even say good-bye to his cousin the
last time they spoke. He'd left McNamara's Santa Barbara, California, home
and headed off to the US city of San Francisco on a whim in late 1977. When
the rebellious 23-year-old returned a few months later, he was told that
McNamara and his good friend James Clark had just left on a sailing trip to
Southeast Asia. According to genocide researcher and author Peter Maguire,
once there, they planned to load their boat with Thai stick then the most
sought after marijuana in the world and smuggle it back
to the US.
But the risks associated with the Thai trade were correspondingly high.
Among those who posed a threat to would-be smugglers, were US Drug
Enforcement Agency officials, as well as the Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian
navies, whose waters had to be trespassed en route to Thailand.
McNamara and Clark could never have imagined the terror that awaited them as
they sailed off into the sunset on what was meant to be just another act of
youthful rebellion yet turned out to be the closing act of their lives.
McNamara was the epitome of California's beach culture: Blonde, blue-eyed,
with a scraggly beard and surfer's physique. He worked as a caretaker at a
Santa Barbara mansion where he lived, yet
his passion lay in the small art gallery he co-owned with his brother.
Bittner and McNamara grew up in the village of Woodstock, New York, not far
from where the world-famous Woodstock rock concert was held in 1969.
Bittner today is the stereotype of a middle-age Woodstock rocker, with
wire-rimmed spectacles and gray streaks running through his long, sleek
McNamara moved to California in the early 1970s. Apart from the art gallery,
his interests lay in watersports and the Mary K: A 12-meter Ferro-cement
block Island Rig yacht he built with fellow
victim Clark. Bittner, who left home at 17, turned up at McNamara's door in
late 1977 just after his father passed away.
"When I arrived at Lance's doorstep, I was a mess. But he took care of me,"
But the emotional baggage he 'd slung at his cousin made Bittner feel guilty
later on, so he packed up and left for San Francisco without even a farewell
note. "Everything was happening there. But I regret it, because I never did
see Lance again," he said.
It is unknown whether McNamara and Clark actually trespassed Cambodian
waters when arrested by members of a Khmer Rouge patrol boat on April 18,
1978. But they were definitely in the vicinity, skirting around the
Vietnamese and Cambodian islands as they crossed the Gulf of Thailand.
"The primary purpose of [Khmer Rouge] patrol boats was to intercept
Vietnamese naval craft
and to interdict fishing by Thai boats," noted historian Stephen Heder.
"The Westerners were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time."
At first, McNamara and Clark thought the men in the oncoming vessel were
pirates. They tried to outrun them but were fired upon with a mounted
50-caliber machine-gun. Clark returned fire, first with his revolver, then
with McNamara's pearl-handled .45 Colt. The patrol boat retorted with a
20 mm cannon, scoring a direct hit on the Mary K's hull, according to a
confession Clark later wrote for his abductors.
The pair were blindfolded, taken ashore and thrown into the back of a
rickety truck. From
there, they were driven to the port of Kompong Som now Sihanoukville and
then to Phnom Penh, to the former Tuol Sleng high school, which the Khmer
Rouge had turned into an extermination camp.
The amateur drug-smugglers were about to join at least 14,000 others who
were imprisoned and
tortured at Tuol Sleng.
Genocide researcher Maguire's recent book, "Facing Death in Cambodia"
includes an account of Clark and McNamara's abduction among its interviews
with former guards and survivors from
Tuol Sleng. One survivor, Ung Pech, "recalled hearing one of the American
prisoners cry out in pain as a teenage guard dragged him across the
courtyard by his beard." Both McNamara and Clark had big bushy beards.
Details of what happened to Clark and McNamara once inside Tuol Sleng remain
sketchy. They may have been kept shackled together with hundreds of
Cambodian prisoners in a long room, or chained to the wall of a
cupboard-size cells. They most certainly would have been kept on starvation
rations and forced to undergo weeks, perhaps months of torture until they
confessed to the "real" purpose of their sailing trip.
"Everyone had heard of these amazing, exotic, get-rich-quick schemes,"
Maguire wrote. "One of the major ones was marijuana smuggling from
The Khmer Rouge regime, however, was under the impression that Cambodia had
been severely infiltrated by countless foreign agents. They tortured and
executed thousands of their own citizens under charges of espionage, and
leveled the same accusations at any foreigner caught on Khmer
Clark's lengthy biography, found at Tuol Sleng after the Vietnamese ousted
the Khmer Rouge in 1979, is laced with tales of his fictional involvement
with the US Central Intelligence Agency.
"The key country to watch in Southeast Asia is Cambodia, the most successful
communist country," Clark wrote. "The US thought that if Cambodia became
strong enough, it would invade Thailand and turn it into communism. After
Thailand, it would be easy to make Malaysia communist and then Singapore
would be threatened."
Clark also admitted to photographing boats, islands and radio installations
for the CIA. He wrote that he had been paid $1.1 million for his efforts,
and that he'd enlisted McNamara for a $400,000 cut.
No other evidence has been unearthed at Tuol Sleng to prove that McNamara
ever made it off the Mary K.
Secondary evidence exists in the form of a declassified US Defense
Department document dated
January 1980. The document reports the visit of a Dr Sinclair to Tuol Sleng
a few weeks following the Vietnamese liberation. Sinclair "was told by
guides that four US nationals, two Australians and a number of French had
died there" and that "two American civilians, James W Clark and Lance P
McNamara, became missing in April 1978 while on a yachting trip."
"The Khmer Rouge leadership realized these Americans in particular were hot
potatoes, so they took special measures to dispose of their remains in
secret," wrote historian Craig Etcheson.
This theory was corroborated by Tuol Sleng's former commander Comrade
Duch, according to
photojournalist Nic Dunlop who discovered Duch in 1999 while he was working
as at a refugee camp under the alias Hang Pin.
Duch admitted that his superior, Brother No 2 Nuon Chea, "ordered the
foreigners be killed
and their bodies burned, so no bones were left," he said. "Only the
Europeans were burned."
Bittner first came to Cambodia in 1999 with the
hope of locating McNamara's remains. But the mission proved fruitless and
after a heavy night's drinking, Bittner found himself at the gates of Tuol
Sleng. Being midnight it was closed, but a $5 bribe got him in.
Not only did the guards give Bittner a private tour, they simulated some of
the tortures carried out on prisoners in one of the dark, dingy
Yet the mood was anything but theatrical. Coupling facts they knew about how
the US abandoned Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge in 1975 with assumptions they
made about Bittner's perverse
curiosity, the guards became boisterous, outlandish and finally, incensed.
"You understand!" yelled one of the guards as he simulated electrical
torture on one of his colleagues. "You understand!"
Next on the tour of horrors came the photograph rooms.
"This was my grandmother!" yelled one of the guards, pointing at a faded
black and white photograph. "This was our famous folk singer!" yelled
Only when the party came across Clark's photograph, with Bittner pointing
madly at it and screaming "Him! He was my friend!" did the guards become
aware of Bittner's connection with Tuol Sleng. They went back to their posts
and left him to further explore the museum on his own.
"I spent three alone hours in the interrogation room," Bittner said. "I was
just so desperate
for some kind of communication with Lance... to see what he saw, to talk to
The experience had a profoundly disturbing affect on Bittner. He returned to
the US and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a
psychological ailment common to those who experience the killing of a loved
"You get this overwhelming sensation where you just can't function," Bittner
explained. "You cry but it's not like normal cryingÑit's like screaming
cryingÑlike a horror movie image that chases you again and again."
Discouraged with conventional psychiatry, Bittner sought a practitioner of
eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. The process is "the most
effective and rapid method for treating post-traumatic stress disorder and
has been used extensively to treat survivor's of the Sept 11, 2001, terror
attacks in the US," according to BioLateral.com, an EMDR Web Site.
In EMDR, the patient uses his eyes to track a therapist's fingers while they
move them from side to
side. This "stimulates powerful brain activity [while] the client
reactivates a [traumatic] image," according to the EMDR Web site.
"The client is instructed to uncritically follow his/her thoughts and
associations, which often leads to rapid insight and a systemic letting go
of the traumatic event."
"The whole thing sounds kind of kooky," Bittner admits, but says that the
treatment did work.
Bittner returned to Cambodia in late March with two goals in mind: To find
out for once and for all how McNamara died, and to promote EMDR to mental
health professionals here.
Bittner said he is not associated with any particular EMDR institution or
therapist, and that he simply wants to help others benefit from the method.
One of the groups Bittner contacted was the Transcultural Psychological
Organization, a World Heath Organization collaborative group focusing
exclusively on mental health. TPO Managing
Director Dr Sothera Chhim said he has had some training in EMDR and that his
staff is now discussing the viability of sourcing an EMDR trainer. According
to TPO data, 28 percent of the population suffer from post-traumatic stress
EMDR "seems to be effective in treating mild cases of post-traumatic stress
disorder," he opined. "In Mr Bittner's case, he had some of the symptoms
like nightmares and flash backs, and EMDR seems to have helped."
Sothera Chhim added: "I think maybe [Bittner] still has some problems.... I
could see how sad he was when he talked about his cousin."
During his latest visit to Cambodia, Bittner traveled from Phnom Penh to
Kandal province's Prek Keo village in search of Suos Thy, who worked as the
chief clerk at Tuol Sleng.
Armed with color photographs of McNamara as he would have appeared when he
was abducted, Bittner hoped to get a positive identification and perhaps
information that would allow him to put McNamara's memory to rest.
But Suos Thy offered only muffled responses to questions. After a few
minutes the former clerk became so nervous that he stopped tending his
chilies and crouched down on the ground as his eyelids flickered
Bittner stood at a distance as Suos Thy replied in a nearly inaudible voice
that he had paid for his crimes by serving five years in a Vietnamese prison
camp. He gave only a cursory look at Mc-Namara's photograph before stating
that all foreigners brought to Tuol Sleng were kept in a segregated area to
which he never had access.
It is not possible to verify Suos Thy's statement. Like the prisoners they
violated, the lives of Tuol Sleng staff were tenuous at best. More than 500
of them were put to death, often for trivial offenses. "One S-21 guard was
killed for burning a wasp's nest, another for shouting "the house is on
fire' in his sleep," wrote historians Meng Try Ea and Sorya Sim.
"It's hard to imagine that someone so benign could've been part of that,"
Bittner said, as he left Suos Thy in peace. "It's frustrating. It doesn't
seem like anyone is going to give anything up."
"I know it's nothing compared to what the Cambodian people went through," he
said. "But I just
have to know what happened to Lance."