Florida Teen, War Criminal: The Life Of An 'American Warlord'

Apr 4, 2015
Originally published on April 8, 2015 11:33 am

Only one American in history has ever been convicted of torture committed abroad: Chuckie Taylor, the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor.

His father led militants to take control of Liberia in the late '90s, went in exile after Liberia's Second Civil War and was found guilty of abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone. But young Chuckie Taylor seemed far removed from that warlord life — he lived in America with his mother and stepfather, just another teenager listening to hip-hop and watching TV in his room.

In his new book American Warlord, journalist Johnny Dwyer traces how Chuckie Taylor went from Florida teenager to imprisoned war criminal.

After Taylor started getting in trouble in his early teens, Dwyer says, his mother sent him to West Africa to spend some time with his father. At first, the 14-year-old didn't pay much attention to what was going on around him. Then he started venturing out to Liberia's front lines.

A few years later, Taylor dropped out of school and moved to Liberia.

"[Charles Taylor] had just survived a really significant assassination attempt," Dwyer tells NPR's Arun Rath. "This had a really big impact on Chuckie. He felt that Taylor's security apparatus was not up to the task of taking care of his father. So Chuckie wanted to build a unit that could actually do that."

So the 17-year-old assumed command of a secret paramilitary unit designed to protect his father — a unit that would commit the crimes for which he's now in jail.


Interview Highlights

On 14-year-old Chuckie's first exposure to the Liberian Civil War

He was sort of in the care and custody of a really notorious commander, a guy named Bill Horace, and in terms of people to be coupled with, I mean, this was a really bad individual. He was known for leading one of Taylor's units called the Navy Unit and they were responsible for crucifixions and they basically had a policy where they didn't take prisoners; they didn't take survivors.

This was Chuckie's really first exposure to what civil war looked like in Liberia. And then he went back to Orlando. He should have gone back to high school, but he never did.

On Chuckie Taylor leaving Liberia for Trinidad

The Taylor government came apart in the summer of 2003. It was very much like a criminal enterprise, where people were turning evidence and there was this concern that anyone could be arrested by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Chuckie at that point fled to Trinidad, which is where his mother's family is from and where he had honeymooned. He had a connection to that community.

He really assumed a very anonymous life; He became a security guard, just to give you a sense of the range of experience. And then he started attempting to launch a hip-hop career, writing lyrics and eventually going into a local studio in Port of Spain [Trinidad] to record those lyrics.

On Taylor rejecting his father's legacy

We began talking about his father's legacy ... And this was really the first moment where I felt there was some reflection on his father's role in Sierra Leone, his father's role in destroying Liberia, and Chuckie really wanted to just sort of distance himself from that legacy ... in a lot of respects, just distance himself from his father. In the past he just wasn't really willing to go there, but this was one situation where he was very clearly wanting to establish that distance.

On what Chuckie has taught him about the nature of evil

In another environment maybe he wouldn't have acted out that way. When you look at what he did in Trinidad, he made music — and that's very much a part of the cultural lifeblood of Trinidad. In Liberia he participated in political violence, which was what was going on there at that moment. So in terms of broader insights into evil, I think the biggest insight I took from Chuckie was that evil is directly in front of you on a daily basis and depending on the environment you're in and what your intentions are, you can indulge that or you can look away.


Today, Chuckie Taylor is serving a 97-year sentence in a federal penitentiary in Kentucky. His father, former Liberian president Charles Taylor, is serving 50 years in a British prison.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Only one American has ever been found guilty of the war crime of torture, and it had nothing to do with the CIA's interrogation program or the war on terror. The convicted American was Chuckie Taylor, the son of Liberian President Charles Taylor. Charles Taylor led militants to take control of Liberia in the late '90s and ended up resigning amid war crimes allegations.

But his son, Chuckie, grew up in America with his mother and stepfather, leading a fairly ordinary life. Johnny Dwyer traces how Chuckie went from Florida teenager to convicted war criminal in his book, "American Warlord." Dwyer says that when Chucky Taylor started getting in trouble in his early teens, his mom thought it would be a good idea to send him off to spend time with his father in Africa.

JOHNNY DWYER: Chuckie entered into that environment as an American kid. And one of his cousins said he was very much the stereotypical American kid - eating cornflakes, watching TV, not really paying attention to what was going on around him. And then he started participating a little bit and venturing out to the front lines.

RATH: And how old was he?

DWYER: At that point, he was about 14 years old.

RATH: At 14 years old and that's when he's venturing out to the front lines in Liberia?

DWYER: Yeah. He was sort of in the care and custody of a really notorious commander, a guy named Bill Horace. And in terms of people to be coupled with, I mean, this was a really bad individual. He was known for leading one of Taylor's units called the Navy Unit. And they're responsible for crucifixions. They basically had a policy where they didn't - they didn't take prisoners. They didn't leave survivors. And this was Chuckie's really first exposure to what civil war looked like in Liberia. And then he went back to Orlando. And he went back to - or he should have gone back to high school, but he never did.

RATH: And can you talk about his - when he returned to Liberia and his, then, rise to power with his father, because he was then put in charge of a security force?

DWYER: Taylor was elected in 1977. He won a popular election, and he had just survived a really significant assassination attempt. This had a really big impact on Chuckie. He felt that Taylor's security apparatus was not up to the task of taking care of his father. So Chuckie wanted to build a unit that could actually do that. And he wanted them to be well-trained. He wanted them to be incorruptible. And he wanted them to be feared.

RATH: And obviously, we're skipping over some history here. But after the fall of his father - after the fall of Charles Taylor - what happened to Chuckie, and how did he make his way back to the U.S.?

DWYER: Yeah. So the Taylor government, you know, came apart in the summer of 2003. And it was very much like a criminal enterprise where people were turning evidence and there was this concern that anyone could be arrested by the special court for Sierra Leone. Chuckie, at that point, fled to Trinidad, which is where his mother's family is from and where he had honeymooned. And he had a connection to that community. And he really assumed a very anonymous life. He became a security guard, just to give you a sense of the range of experience. And then he started attempting to launch a hip-hop career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

CHUCKIE TAYLOR: (Rapping) Caught me blazing. Squashing all that Hollywood (unintelligible). And you're about to feel the heat from 34 degrees. With your blood running hot we'll have you (unintelligible) for priest. And now there's...

JOHNNY DWYER: Writing lyrics and eventually going into a local studio in Port of Spain to record those lyrics.

RATH: You have some tape that you shared with us of a phone conversation with Chuckie. Can you tell us - set us up. What's going on here?

DWYER: He caught me at lunch and we began talking about his father's legacy, or rather he began talking about it. And this was really the first moment where I felt there was some reflection on his father's role in Sierra Leone - his father's role in destroying Liberia.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)

TAYLOR: I personally won't be defined by my father's legacy, all right? I'm an individual. I believe that I stand on my own personal morals and values. While we may have some things in common in regard to family, that's truly where it ends. And another thing, you've had enough time to know that I wasn't part of that nightmare that took place in Sierra Leone.

DWYER: In a lot of respects he just distanced himself from his father. And in the past, he just wasn't really willing to go there. But this was one situation where he was very clearly wanting to establish that distance.

RATH: Johnny, you probably have a more complete sense of this amazing life that Chuckie Taylor lived, I mean, the American side, the Liberian side, you know, this, you know, American kid who ends up becoming a torturer and war criminal. Do you come out of this with any insights into this cruelty about this man?

DWYER: You know, in another environment, maybe he wouldn't have acted out that way. I mean, when you look at what he did in Trinidad, he made music. And that's very much part of the cultural lifeblood of Trinidad. In Liberia, he participated in political violence, which was what was going on there at that moment.

So in terms of broader insights into evil, I mean, I think the biggest insight I took from Chuckie was that, you know, evil is directly in front of you on a daily basis, and depending on the environment you're in and what your intentions are, you can indulge that or you can look away.

RATH: That's Johnny Dwyer. His new book about Chuckie Taylor is called "American Warlord." It's out on Tuesday. Johnny, thanks very much.

DWYER: Thank you.

RATH: Chuckie Taylor is serving a 97-year sentence in a federal penitentiary in Kentucky. His father, former Liberian President Charles Taylor, is serving 50 years in a British prison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.