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American Warlord

Chucky Taylor was an ordinary suburban teenager - until he went to live with his father, one of Africa's most brutal dictators. How did a kid from Orlando end up as the first U.S. citizen on trial for torture abroad?

Chucky Taylor
September 18, 2008

Chucky Taylor stood in the garage of a villa on the outskirts of Liberia's capital, gun in hand. Outside, crimson puddles of rain pocked the muddy red-clay road to Monrovia. By Chucky's side was a spectral figure named Benjamin Yeaten, known as "50" to the legion of mercenaries and former child soldiers he and Chucky commanded. In front of the two men, bleeding and terrified, was a university student accused of aiding a rebel army that was working its way through the jungle toward the capital.

It was July 2002, and civil war had been rampaging through Liberia for 13 years, transforming one of Africa's oldest democracies into a ghoulish landscape. Drugged-out militias manned checkpoints decorated with human intestines and severed heads. Small children were forced into battle by the thousands. Women were raped and turned into sex slaves known as "bush wives." Enemies were disemboweled, cooked and cannibalized. All told, human rights groups estimate, more than 600,000 Liberians were murdered, raped, maimed or mutilated in the conflict.

In the midst of this reign of terror, Chucky was among the most feared men in the country. Only 25, he created and commanded the Anti-Terrorist Unit, the president's personal security force – source of such pride that Chucky had the group's emblem, a crest of a hissing cobra and a scorpion, tattooed on his chest. In the capital, he cut a terrifying figure, scattering crowds as he raced through traffic in a Land Cruiser with a license plate that read DEMON. When he appeared in public, he was almost always outfitted in black or camouflage fatigues, a well-built figure strapped with a 9-millimeter, a cigar in hand. His face – the dark eyes, the round cheeks, the neatly trimmed beard was immediately familiar to Liberians who had endured the long civil war. Not only because of his menacing reputation but because of the man he so closely resembled: his father, Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia, who had set the region ablaze with four devastating wars over the span of two decades.

As the son of the president, Chucky was among the most powerful leaders in his father's military. But standing in the villa outside Monrovia, brandishing his weapon over his prisoner, he was a long way from home. Only a decade earlier, Chucky had been an American teenager growing up in a modest, two-story brick house with his mother and stepfather in a parched subdivision of Orlando, a short drive from Disney World. He had come of age in a strip-mall landscape of payday loan shops and an endless parade of fast-food joints. He attended Evans High School, a squat structure with the motto "A Place of High Achievement." He loved hip-hop and spent countless hours in his bedroom rapping, spinning records, preparing for the day he would enter the studio and become an MC. Like most American teens, he knew almost nothing about Africa, let alone its brutal and divisive politics.

Now, standing in the villa outside Monrovia, Chucky leveled his gun at the helpless university student before him. He wanted information. His father's opponents were closing in on the capital, on the brink of overthrowing the government. Where were the rebels? Who was providing them weapons? Were the Americans involved? There was little to keep Chucky from extracting the information any way he wanted. After all, he was a U.S. citizen. His father was president of the country. No one could touch him. "Chucky was very much like the Hussein sons," says David Crane, the founding chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. "He was completely above the law, protected by his father and his henchmen."

Chucky tried threatening the student with his gun. Then, as dawn approached, he and Yeaten began to torture the man. According to a 17-page federal indictment brought by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, Yeaten, who is referred to as "co-conspirator B," burned the student with a hot iron and doused him with scalding water. Chucky shocked the victim's genitals repeatedly with an electrical device. It was the kind of interrogation that those closest to Chucky had seen him conduct many times before. "Chucky Taylor executed a lot of people," says retired Brig. Gen. John Tarnue, who served under Chucky in the Anti-Terrorist Unit. "In my presence he tortured people. He tied them. He called it tabay. Elbow to elbow. And twine went into the flesh. He sit there, cross his legs, and smoke cigars. He didn't touch them, but he gave them the order. He said, 'I want to see blood.'"

Today, as his father stands trial for war crimes at the U.N.'s court in The Hague, Chucky Taylor sits in the Federal Detention Center in Miami. On September 15th, he will face trial as the first civilian in American history to be charged with committing torture abroad. In phone calls and letters to me over the past two years, he has repeatedly denied the charges, implying that he is a victim of an American policy targeting his father. His conversations, like his letters, ramble, alternating between swaggering defiance and confused despair. At the very least, he suggests, he is a victim of a bizarre double standard, prosecuted by a U.S. government that itself has engaged in torture, in open defiance of the Geneva Conventions.

"Innocence is not my dilemma," he wrote in March 2007 in a letter that covered five handwritten pages torn from a yellow legal pad, punctuated with the occasional smiley face. "It is how do I prove my innocence, and not make this intelligence-gathering exercise for these cocksuckers in Washington – that's the challenge presented.… They say absolute power corrupts absolutely [but] there is no other government in the world that operates with [more] impunity than Washington, and those that operated with its covert support."

Chucky's mother Bernice Emmanuel, first saw Charles Taylor in the mid-1970s in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, when he was an economics student at nearby Bentley College. "I met him through one of his neighbors," she recalls. "I was coming out of the building, and he asked for my number." She quickly fell for the handsome young man, the son of an elite Liberian family. Taylor belonged to a close-knit community of expat students who had been sent to Boston to receive an American education. At the time, revolution was sweeping across Africa, and the Liberian students were agitating for a seismic change in their nation, from the rule of the traditional elite to political power for the tribal disenfranchised.

Emmanuel and Taylor eventually moved into a cozy apartment together. They soon had a son, Michael, who passed away at seven months, and a daughter, Zoe. On February 12th, 1977, after a torturous labor, Emmanuel gave birth to Chucky; he weighed 12 pounds, 14 ounces. Chucky had gray eyes and a ghostly pale complexion, a vestige of Emmanuel's white grandfather. When Charles Taylor arrived at the hospital, "he didn't believe that the boy was his kid," Emmanuel says. "He didn't look like he was a black baby." They named their son Charles McArthur Emmanuel.

The couple never married, but they enjoyed several idyllic years in their Dorchester apartment. "We lived together for eight years," Emmanuel says. "I was considered his common-law wife."

During Chucky's first year, Emmanuel was the breadwinner, though Taylor juggled jobs at Sears and Mutual of Omaha. Chucky, Emmanuel says, "was the happiest baby." One day, around Chucky's first birthday, Taylor saw his son drinking from a baby bottle. He plucked it from his son's hands and threw it out the window. "You're too grown for bottles," he declared.

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