American's Death Still A Greek Mystery, 65 Years Later : Parallels George Polk was a CBS correspondent covering the Greek civil war when he was murdered in 1948. Three men were convicted of involvement, but now an ex-prosecutor wants to reopen the case.
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American's Death Still A Greek Mystery, 65 Years Later

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American's Death Still A Greek Mystery, 65 Years Later

American's Death Still A Greek Mystery, 65 Years Later

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

The George Polk Award is a coveted prize in journalism. It recognizes courageous reporting, placing a premium on investigative stories.

The award is named after CBS correspondent George Polk. He was murdered in Greece while covering that country's civil war in the late 1940s. Now, 65 years later, a retired Greek prosecutor has petitioned to re-open the case.

Joanna Kakissis has the story.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: George Polk was descended from the American president who led the conquest of Texas. But Texas was too small for George, says his brother, William Polk.

WILLIAM POLK: Texas was a little backwater at that time and he had a tremendous sense of curiosity.

KAKISSIS: So George became a journalist, reporting from China, Japan and France. Then, during World War II, he served as a fighter pilot in the Pacific and was badly wounded. After the war, he reported on the trial of the Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg, Germany.

POLK: So he had the remarkable experience of sitting just a few feet away from Hermann Goering and the various other leading Nazis, whereas six months before he'd been in a foxhole on Guadalcanal, where a Japanese soldier tried to kill him with a knife.

KAKISSIS: George was determined, William says, that the world not fall back into the grips of fascism. That's one reason he was attracted to Greece, his base for broadcasting as the CBS radio correspondent for the Middle East.


GEORGE POLK: Today Soviet agents are busy in Turkey, Greece and other Middle East countries.

KAKISSIS: In the late 1940's, Greece was the front line of the Cold War. A bloody civil war was raging there. Communist guerrillas were fighting a right-wing government. George Polk suspected Greek officials were, at the very least, stealing aid money from the United States.

He found that what the Greek government at the time was doing, and what it was like, was not the kind of government that he had fought to save during World II.

POLK: George got death threats and he was constantly followed. Undaunted, in May of 1948, he traveled to the Port of Thessaloniki in the embattled north. A few days later, there was a gruesome discovery.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The body of George Polk, Middle Eastern correspondent for the Columbia Broadcasting System, was found floating in the bay of Salonika, Greece.

KAKISSIS: He was blindfolded, hands and feet bound, with a bullet wound in the back of the head. George Polk was just 34 years old.

The Greek government blamed his murder on communist rebels. In a trial the following year, two were convicted in absentia. A third man, a journalist named Gregory Staktopoulos, confessed involvement. But George's brother, William Polk, was not buying it.

POLK: The trial was a joke. The defense attorneys never raised any of the issues they could have raised. They never called witnesses they could have called.

KAKISSIS: William had dropped out of Harvard to find out what happened to his brother. He started getting death threats himself. And he got no help from U.S. officials who supported the Greek regime.

POLK: The American government at that time said, OK, it's corrupt, OK, it's deceitful but it's our group. We can't deal with the communists.

KAKISSIS: The U.S. government seemed content with the verdict. And the man accused of involvement in the murder, Gregory Staktopoulos, went to jail for nearly a decade.


GREGORY STAKTOPOULOS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: A few years before he died in 1998, Staktopoulos told a documentary filmmaker that he had nothing to do with the Polk murder. He also wrote a memoir that alarmed Edmund Keeley, a writer and Princeton University professor.

EDMUND KEELEY: And I found it very convincing because he described in detail how he'd been mistreated, how he'd been beaten, and that he was forced to make a number of confessions. And the confessions changed as they found new evidence that did not corroborate what they had made him to confess before, so he had to confess again.

KAKISSIS: Keeley wrote the definitive account of the Polk case. "The Salonica Bay Murder" was published in 1990. Nearly 20 years later, a retired Greek prosecutor named Athanasios Kafiris came out with his own book on the case.

(Foreign language spoken)

I met Kafiris at his apartment in northern Athens.

ATHANASIOS KAFIRIS: (Through Translator) I first heard the name Polk when I was 12. All we knew about the story then was that communists had killed an American journalist.

KAKISSIS: He says he did not question this narrative until 2002, when he was a prosecutor at the Greek Supreme Court. The widow of Gregory Staktopoulos asked him to help exonerate her husband. It was the family's fourth appeal.

KAFIRIS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: It did not take long for Kafiris to conclude that Staktopoulos and the other two men convicted for Polk's murder were scapegoats. But the Supreme Court rejected the appeal.

Now Kafiris is trying again, enlisting the help of another prosecutor. He says Greece must right this wrong and face its past.

KAFIRIS: (Through Translator) What's happening in our country today is directly related to civil war. The rise of neo-Nazis like Golden Dawn, for example, that's the result of deep hate that exists even after so many years.

KAKISSIS: William Polk is now 84 years old and a noted scholar of the Middle East. He says documentation on his brother's case has all been destroyed. And that would have galled George, he says, who strongly believed that...

POLK: The message is the really important thing. If the public doesn't receive the message, it cannot be responsible as a citizen. And therefore, democracy and freedom and so forth, simply will wither away.

KAKISSIS: For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

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