Clues surface thanks to submarine sleuths Robot helps find sunken evidence

January 19, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Correspondent

UPPER MARLBORO -- The suspect was Udo Proksch, once the playboy owner of a chandelier-lit Vienna cafe who peddled pastries to Austria's ruling elite -- and may have run guns for Italy's Red Brigades.

The sleuths? A team of specialists from Eastport International Inc. that included Bill Lawson, 33, a former boat mechanic from Annapolis who drives a pickup when he's not overseas on the trail of some saboteur.

"We've investigated a lot of international incidents," shrugs the fireplug-shaped Mr. Lawson, sitting in a cubicle brimming with technical manuals at Eastport's headquarters, a pastel-colored warehouse and office building in a business park here. "Our job is to come back with the data, the evidence, for our clients."

Mr. Lawson and his co-workers bagged Mr. Proksch, now in his late 50s, who was convicted last March of murder and insurance fraud and sentenced to 20 years in prison, without wearing trench coats, carrying guns or interviewing witnesses.

Instead, they cracked the case sitting aboard a rusting supply ship, using a joystick to maneuver a school-bus yellow robot sub miles below the surface, armed only with cameras and mechanical manipulator arms.

Each year since 1974, Eastport has retrieved about a dozen lost planes and torpedoes for the Navy. Working off the Florida coast in 1986, an Eastport robot recovered the piece of the space shuttle Challenger booster rocket still bearing the O-ring that failed during launch.

But in the 1980s, when deep ocean salvage work became easier and cheaper because of advances in technology, Eastport began branching out into civilian work. That has mostly meant working for foreign courts and governments locating, photographing and sometimes recovering airliners that crash or ships that sink mysteriously in mid-ocean.

One shady marine disaster brought Bill Lawson to the western Indian Ocean last January on the trail of Proksch -- who became the center of an Austrian insurance fraud and political scandal known as the Lucona affair.

In 1976, Proksch -- the portly, often-married owner of the elegant Demel's cafe and a founder of Vienna's most exclusive social club -- chartered a Panamanian freighter to carry what he claimed was a uranium-processing plant from one of Italy's Adriatic ports to Hong Kong. The cargo, which he said he sold to an unnamed Asian country, was insured for $18 million.

As the ship chugged through the Indian Ocean northwest of the Maldives in January 1977, something ripped through her. Survivors described a huge explosion or sudden collision.

Within two or three minutes, survivors said, six of the 12 crew members were dead and what remained of the ship was headed toward the bottom, almost three miles down.

The insurance company balked at paying Proksch's claim, saying it suspected sabotage, and hired a private detective.

Over the next several years, reports surfaced that the Lucona wasn't carrying a uranium processing plant at all, but 280 tons of worthless scrap metal, including some obsolete coal mining equipment. Proksch, it turned out, had gotten his hands on almost 250 pounds of plastic explosives while producing a training film for the Austrian army.

But for more than a decade Proksch eluded prosecution, reportedly with the help of influential friends in the ruling Socialist party.

One potential witness, a former minister of defense, died mysteriously in 1981. Officials ruled he shot himself in the mouth -- though unlike most suicides, he did so through clenched teeth.

At one point Proksch was arrested, but quickly freed with the aid of Austria's foreign minister. Then, in late 1987, author Hans Pretterebner published a book about the Lucona affair.

Mr. Pretterebner not only detailed the questions surrounding the Lucona's sinking, he linked Proksch with Communist-bloc intelligence agencies, arms deals with Libya and the Red Brigades, and industrial espionage. Two ranking government ministers were forced to resign.

A few months later, another arrest warrant was issued. This time Proksch fled to the Philippines, where, according to news accounts, he produced pornographic movies.

Then in 1989 he was arrested while changing planes at Vienna's airport, his features masked by plastic surgery and a toupee.

Proksch's defenders insisted that the uranium mill was genuine. Citing the sketchy accounts given by survivors, they suggested the Lucona could have been torpedoed by Soviets or Americans, or that the ship had been hijacked and sold.

To settle these questions, the court of Judge Hans-Christian Leiningen-Westerburg hired Eastport to find and photograph the Lucona for about $2 million.

So the Prince George's County company chartered a rusting offshore supply vessel called the Valiant Service and outfitted it with 60 tons of equipment.

When the Valiant Service set sail from Singapore on Jan. 12, 1991, Mr. Lawson was aboard with 10 other Eastport specialists.

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