By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé
On January 17, 1980, a British ship The Trident rescued Captain Aimitrios Georoulis, Chief Engineer Antonios Kalomiropoulos – both of Greece nationality - and 24 crewmen (Tunisians and Greeks) in the Atlantic Ocean, off the Senegalese coast. The seamen claimed that their oil tanker, the Salem had caught fire and exploded but they were able to escape. The crew was turned over to Senegalese authorities. After finding out that the tanker was registered under Liberia flag of convenience, Senegal turned over the Captain and the Chief Engineer to Liberia. The rest of the crew, Tunisians and Greeks were let go.
Two days after the ship supposedly sank, a Lebanese-American, Frederick Ed Soudan from Houston, Texas, and his wife Anna Maria went to claim insurance money from Lloyds of London. Lloyds put a hold on the payment pending investigation. There were questions about the fact that 220,000 metric tons of crude oil could just disappear in thin air. Investigators did not find a single drop of oil where the tanker is said to have exploded. Furthermore, the crew had managed to evacuate with all their belongings from the ship, including blankets, boots and radios. And finally, the ship had spent 7 days more in route to where it sank. Lloyd suspected foul play and launched an investigation with the help of Scotland Yard.
President William Tolbert put the two crewmen under arrest. The South Beach prison was overcrowded because the Liberian government had arrested Baccus Matthews and other opposition leaders and all prisons and holding cells in the city were filled. The two Greek seamen were kept in the holding cells of the basement of the Mansion until the night of April 11, when they were transferred under cover at the South Beach prison. The President was scheduled to leave the next morning to attend the independence celebration of former Rhodesia, which had just gotten its freedom.
The oil tanker, the Salem, had been purchased by the Soudan couple in December 1979. It was laden with crude oil in Nina al Ahmadi in Kuwait. According to the loading documents, the crude oil was destined for a European country. But rather than go thru the Suez Canal, the ship went around the African continent, passing through the Cape of Good Hope. At the time, South Africa was under stiff international sanctions. The country had difficulties getting oil on the open market and paid lots of money for it, sometimes twice the market price. The Salem unloaded its content in Durban. The crew replaced the oil with water, to make it look as if the tanker was loaded.
The Soudan couple were bent on making a “killing.” They had sold 200 000 tons of oil to South Africa through a subsidiary of Shell and they were going to cash in on the insurance money. Things turned sour. President Tolbert, who had taken a lot of beating for allowing a visit by Apartheid South African Premier Vorster was bent of proving to the world that he was not engaged in sanctions breaking and was not dealing with South Africa. He resisted pressures from the Findley Law Firm which represented the Soudan couple interest, as well as his son A. B. Tolbert and many dignitaries of the government. Liberian Deputy Commissioner of Maritime Affairs Captain Alister Crombie submitted a report far different from what Scotland Yard had found. His findings only pointed to issues of certificate and minor maritime laws broken and recommended light penalties. But President Tolbert was bent on having a trial with grand media presence to “clear his name.”
On April 12, around midnight the Executive Mansion was attacked. President Tolbert was killed. Rather than go to Bentol as planned, the President had decided at the last minute to spend the night at the Mansion. After securing the Mansion, Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe and his men then went to South Beach and open the gates of the prison, freeing members of the opposition. The two crewmen and all the prisoners found their freedom and the two Greek disappeared in the confusion.
Frederick Soudan was arrested back in the US and tried. He was convicted of various crimes and sentenced to 20 some years in federal prison. He was freed a few years ago but the files and transcript of his trial were still classified when we first researched this story.
There were many conspiracy theories about the coincidences. But that is the mystery of the Salem saga, also known as the “fraud of the century.”
So shipwrecks can carry many mysteries.