Cover story: Hunt for the Unicorn

For 18 years suspected killer Ira `The Unicorn' Einhorn has been on the run in Europe. David Usborne meets the woman whose efforts on behalf of her murdered sister could finally take the charismatic Seventies hippie leader back to the United States and justice

Meg Maddux Wakeman well remembers the weekend 27 years ago when her elder sister, Holly, brought her new boyfriend to the Maddux family home in Texas to meet her parents. On the telephone, Holly had warned them that he was a hippie leader and probably they wouldn't like him. She was right. At Saturday dinner, he swung his leg onto the table to scratch poison ivy sores and then set about baiting her father, a man with mildly conservative views, on politics and the war in Vietnam.

Meg was especially disconcerted. Hers was the instinctive reaction of a girl worried for a sister who had fallen for the wrong man. It didn't help, she says, that he "made moves" on the two youngest girls in the family, then just nine and 12. And he treated Holly imperiously, demanding after the meal that she comb his hair. "I remember thinking when he came in the door that he was someone to stay away from," Meg recalls.

Holly, striking with blond hair and film-star looks, took longer to reach the same conclusion. It was five years after she first met Ira Einhorn in a bohemian cafe in Philadelphia and became his girlfriend, when, in September of 1977, she found the strength to break up with him. It was a decision that brought consequences more terrible than even Meg could have imagined. Holly paid with her life. She was 30.

Thus began a tragedy that even today has not yet been put to rest. Holly's parents have since died; her father, tortured by rheumatoid arthritis, committed suicide in 1988 and two years later her mother died of emphysema, aggravated by grief. Now only the four siblings remain - Meg, the eldest, her two younger sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, and a brother, John, the only Maddux still living in Texas.

What happened to Holly Maddux is disputed by almost no one - aside from Einhorn himself and his lawyers. Enraged that she wanted to leave him, he summoned her on that September night to his Philadelphia apartment. And there he murdered her, bludgeoning her skull and then stuffing her body into an oversized trunk. He put the trunk in a cupboard, where it remained for a year-and-a-half before neighbours below became suspicious and alerted the police. There was the awful stench and the strange fluids seeping through the ceiling. The police found the trunk and opened it. They uncovered three air-fresheners, some Styrofoam packaging, an arm, and, finally, the full body of Holly, in the final stages of mummification.

Einhorn has always been clear about his innocence. He was framed, he says, by the KGB. Or the CIA. Or both. This was because, he says, he had exposed government secrets in mind-control weaponry and they had planted Holly's body in his apartment to silence him. In 1993, however, a jury in Philadelphia convicted Einhorn of first-degree murder and the judge sentenced him to life imprisonment. But there was a significant problem. The conviction was delivered in absentia. Einhorn had long since vanished from American shores and was on the lam in Europe. Now, at least, his whereabouts have been uncovered. Einhorn, though, is living the good life with a wealthy Swedish wife in a converted mill not far from the French city of Bordeaux.

The chronicles of Ira Einhorn, a former hippie and New-Age guru who wooed friends and supporters among the rich and influential in Philadelphia in the Sixties and Seventies, and who claims - dishonestly, according to Meg - to have been a co-founder of the Earth Day movement, have spawned myriad features articles, documentaries and a book. This spring, the NBC network will air in the United States a made-for-TV series about the man who likes to call himself "The Unicorn".

It is a story, indeed, with all the requisite ingredients. A former high- school cheerleader and beauty slain in her prime. An urban folk hero turned fugitive who, for almost two decades, evades the long arm of American law, absconding in turn to England, Ireland, Sweden and, finally, France. And now there is more: a legal battle at the highest levels between the United States, which is demanding Einhorn's extradition to face justice for his crime, and France, which so far has demurred.

Meg, along with her sisters and brother, now finds herself party to a transatlantic campaign to persuade France to relinquish Einhorn. In December 1997, a panel of three judges in a courthouse in Bordeaux turned down America's first extradition request. Now the US is trying again. When the judges held a new hearing in December last year, all four of the Maddux's were in the courtroom, seated just feet away from man who took away their sister. The four returned in January to hear the court's decision, only to be told it had been deferred for a month. Now, the court is promising a final ruling next Thursday. Meg, 42, a paediatric nurse in Seattle, cannot go this time for work reasons, but her brother and sisters will be back in France once more to await the outcome.

On a recent February afternoon in her small woodframe house close to the Seattle zoo, Meg, who is divorced with two children of her own, aged 11 and 15, could barely allow herself to hope. All she wants is finally to see Einhorn "in a courtroom answering to his responsibilities as a US citizen". But along the road, the disappointments have just been too numerous and too bitter. "I fear a technicality," she adds warily, "that will have nothing to do with guilt or the crime or the violence. Most of all, I fear that it will have nothing to do with the victim - that Holly once more will be shoved aside."

It is that - the fixation with Einhorn, both in the media and in the legal process - that galvanises Meg above all else. She spreads over her dining-room table a collection of black-and-white photographs of Holly, a beatified elder sister who never once raised her voice to siblings and spoiled them on her visits home, with presents at Christmas and trick- or-treat outings on Halloween. There is Holly the infant suckling at her mother's breast; disarming toddler Holly riding a new tricycle; high-school Holly doing the splits in her cheerleading uniform, pom-poms at her side; and, finally, graduate Holly receiving her diploma from Bryn Mawr, a college outside Philadelphia, the city she eventually adopted as home.

Meg, who needs no reminding of the details of the case, nonetheless leafs once more through the countless magazine articles she has collected, along with a large box filled with legal correspondence. She has dog-eared copies of Time, Newsweek and People magazine. She flushes with distress. It is not the journalism that angers her but the endless pictures of Einhorn, his once-thick beard grown grey and scraggly.

Meg's fight for justice began the moment Einhorn was arrested in 1978. She still remembers her astonishment when she learnt that his high-flying lawyer at the time, a certain Arlen Specter, who is now Pennsylvania's senior senator in the United States Congress, managed to have him set free pending trial on a bail of $40,000. "I was absolutely floored. It was as if they were stamping on Holly's grave," she remembers.

Then, in January 1981, when Einhorn's trial was at last about to begin, came the devastating news that she had feared all along. He had skipped bail. The alarm was only sounded when two acquaintances spotted him walking along a beach in Nova Scotia, Canada, and they telephoned the police in Philadelphia and asked what was going on. The District Attorney's office appointed one of its own investigators, Richard DiBenedetto, to find him. It was a mission that was to take DiBenedetto the best part of 16 years.

On the run, Einhorn, whose activities in Philadelphia had included a quixotic run for city mayor and a brief spell as a guest lecturer at Harvard, turned to his network of wealthy followers for financial support. This flower-power self-promoter, a self-described "planetary enzyme" who could take the problems and ills of his disciples and somehow digest them on their behalf, counted among his friends renowned scientists and figures of the Beat movement. One, who later admitted to having regularly sent money to him in the first years of his flight from justice, was Barbara Bronfman, a former wife of one of the heirs to the Seagram drinks empire.

After reading a 1988 book about the Maddux murder written by journalist Steven Levy, The Unicorn's Secret, which changed her opinion of Einhorn, Bronfman revealed the fugitive's whereabouts to DiBenedetto. After spending several years in Dublin, where he used the name Ben Moore, a brand of American paint as popular in America as Dulux in Britain, he had moved once more, this time to Stockholm. And there he had met a Swedish heiress to a retail empire and married her. Her name was Annika Flodin.

It was only several years later, however, when DiBenedetto finally struck gold. A Swedish Interpol colleague had discovered that an Annika Flodin had applied for a driving licence in France using a false name. The name was Mallon. DiBenedetto instantly made the connection. Mallon was the name of a known friend of Einhorn in Dublin, a bookshop owner. There was even an address for a mill house in a bucolic village called Champagne-Mouton, not far from Bordeaux in France's Cognac region. At DiBenedetto's urging, on 15 May 1997, a team of French gendarmes knocked on the door. Flodin answered. Einhorn was upstairs in bed. He was handcuffed and taken into custody.

For the Maddux's it seemed then that justice at last was in sight. The United States had a 90-year-old extradition treaty with France and they waited quietly for the legal wheels to turn. That, however, was to underestimate Einhorn and his aggressive new lawyers, who included Ted Simon, best known for his work for a young American caned in Singapore. Simon spotted a flaw in the US request. Although Einhorn had been found guilty in Philadelphia in 1993, convictions in absentia are not valid under French law. With the trial, his lawyers argued, the Philadelphia DA had violated provisions in the European Convention on Human Rights. Their presentation won the day and in December 1997 the extradition request was turned down. In a blaze of cameras, a cock-a-hoop Einhorn returned to his mill, to his wife and to freedom.

"It was absolutely galling," remembers Meg. "I was totally overwhelmed with frustration. How was I going to process my emotions after such an insult? It was such a terrible insult to Holly and to her memory."

It was then that Meg and her siblings decided they could no longer stand on the sidelines. First, Meg had to tell her children what was going on. Her son, who hadn't known his Aunt Holly had been murdered, was frightened. "Is he going to come and get us?" he asked his mother. "I just had to hope that my kids and all the other people who have contacted us and shown their support understand that even if the justice system seems to fail you, you just have to keep going, no matter what," Meg explains.

The Maddux's took action on several fronts. They persuaded 35 members of Congress to write to President Jacques Chirac. They filed a wrongful death civil suit against Einhorn, designed not so much to elicit damages from him but to prevent him from profiting financially from his story. Most importantly, they lobbied lawmakers in Pennsylvania to amend state law to assure Einhorn a new trial following extradition. The law was passed last year, opening the way to the second extradition request that will be determined next week.

Lawyers for Einhorn argue that, even with the new law, there is still no guarantee he will get the new trial he is promised. The US is "engaged in a deliberate attempt to misguide French justice," said Dominique Delthil, who represented Einhorn at December's hearing. And, as they have ever since Einhorn was first arrested, his lawyers have depicted the United States as a country that rides roughshod over human rights. The death penalty has been frequently evoked, even though it cannot be applied to Einhorn.

These are days of awful suspense for Meg, but what is most striking about her is her composure. Only when she is off guard - when the reporter's tape recorder is off - will she rail at what she believes is the anti-American undercurrent of the Bordeaux proceedings. On the record, she will say nothing of the panel of three judges which will be ruling on Thursday. About Einhorn's lawyers, however, she is less restrained. "They have been absolutely anti-American and have been deliberately trying to spread anti-American hysteria," she exclaims. She was shocked when at the December hearing she and her sisters and brother were the only people to be body-searched before entering the courtroom. "I was really insulted. I asked them if this was because we were from Texas and we might be packing pistols or something."

Logic and an innate sense of right and wrong, instilled, she says, by her parents, tell Meg that this time France will acquiesce to Washington and Einhorn will at last be netted for good. "If they deny extradition again, well, it will be beyond me," she sighs. "It would be beyond all my lines of reasoning."

Friends ask her why she is doing this. Why is she sustaining the pain of a murder committed half her life ago? "If we don't do it, who will?" is her stock answer. She also knows that if it was one of the other Maddux children who had been killed, then Holly would have been out there fighting for them, however long it took. "She would have been leading the charge. Actually, she would have solved it by now, because she would have found the key to the problem," Meg says.

Surprisingly, Meg has not grown to despise France. She spent 10 weeks in Strasbourg as a student and still has fond memories of it. "Our idea of justice in the free world is really the same, it is just that we go about it in different ways. And this has been a real eye-opener and sometimes infuriating. Yet you have to believe that in the end the result will be the same - that you will both end up with justice." Meg, distracted by her two overfed cats, pauses. "Well, that's my theory. I just hope it holds".

Above, from left: Philadelphia, 1970, Ira Einhorn at the Earth Day celebration; 1979, the trunk containing Holly's mummified body being carried away from the apartment building Einhorn lived in; the victim, former cheerleader Holly Maddux; 1979, Einhorn under arrest in America; 4 December, 1997, arriving at the Bordeaux courthouse to hear the French court reject the US request for extradition and order his release

From left: 12 January 1999, Bordeaux, Meg Maddux Wakeman and her sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, wait for the French court's final ruling - it was deferred and will now be announced on Thursday; 5 December 1997, Einhorn with his Swedish heiress wife, Annika, shopping in the market in their village of Champagne-Mouton; the couple's converted mill. Right: 1971, Einhorn in his hippie heyday

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