Just after sunset on Oct. 24, Joseph Wyman was chatting with his nephew outside his jewelry store in the Louisiana river town of Belle Chasse when a man came "running up, at a full, dead run, right into my nephew's face and started talking fast."
The man, almost 6 feet tall and clean shaven, wore brown shorts, a blue T-shirt, black socks and white sneakers and carried a brown, screwlid jar. He was dripping wet.
He appeared to be extremely nervous, Wyman recalled, and kept looking back over his shoulder toward the river "like someone was after him." In a language Wyman suspected was Russian, the man pleaded repeatedly to be taken to the "Novi Orleans Polizi."
"Are you Russian?" Wyman said he asked him.
The man beat his chest with his fists. "Ukrainian," he replied. "Ukrainian."
This was the beginning of the strange odyssey of Miroslav Medvid, a Soviet sailor who jumped from the grain freighter Marshal Konev into the Mississippi River 40 feet below and became the center of a superpower struggle that continues to unfold.
Late tonight, as the ship was tied up in Reserve, La., Senate aides tried to deliver a subpoena giving Medvid the opportunity to leave the freighter, but they were rebuffed by the ship's captain.
Medvid's story has been pieced together from interviews, official accounts and court documents.
For the bewildered seaman, it must have been a mystifying and terrifying journey. During his first hours on American soil, Medvid passed through local authorities, was interviewed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and ordered returned to his ship.
Before he got there, he dived back into the river in an apparent effort to escape from his Soviet colleagues. He was tackled, handcuffed and subdued on shore, where he tried to bash his head against the rocks.
Finally, six Soviet seaman, including the ship's captain, carried him up the gangplank onto the Marshal Konev. An eyewitness said Medvid kicked and cried out as he was hauled away.
Four days later, Medvid was turned over to U.S. officials a second time.
He was interviewed five times over the next 24 hours, but never alone with American officials.
According to court documents, at least one of his Soviet colleagues was present during the interviews, in which he assured U.S. officials that he wanted to return to the Soviet Union.
He said he had fallen overboard accidentally while making electrical repairs.
That benign explanation was hardly the story that spilled out with such urgency and anxiety the night of Oct. 24, when Medvid encountered Joseph Wyman and his nephew Wayne in the parking lot near the river in Belle Chasse, La.
Wyman said he and his nephew immediately concluded that the nervous, fast-talking seaman had jumped ship, and the younger Wyman agreed to drive Medvid to New Orleans. "He dove in that car, he was so happy, he almost landed on my nephew," Wyman said.
Just after the pair drove off, three men approached Wyman in the parking lot asking if he had seen anyone wandering around. "I asked him why, and he said, 'Because one of our comrades has fallen off our ship and may have hurt himself and be looking for assistance.' "
Wyman told the man he hadn't seen anyone and the three headed back in direction of the ship.
Meanwhile, Wayne Wyman and his Soviet passenger were about to cross the river into New Orleans. Medvid asked Wyman to pull into a parking lot, according to a sworn affidavit.
On the back of an AT&T phone bill envelope, he wrote, "policia Novi Orleans," circling the first word and drawing an arrow to the second. He drew a line down the back of the envelope and wrote "USSR" in the upper-right-hand corner, "and tried to gesture that's where he's from," Wayne Wyman wrote in his affidavit. The Wymans have provided a Xerox of the back of that envelope.
As the pair crossed the bridge into New Orleans, Wyman said, the sailor appeared to relax.
"He apologized for getting the seat of the car all wet," Wyman said his nephew reported. "As they crossed the bridge, [Medvid] made a little prayer sign with his hands, and little diving motions, to show it was like he had dived off the ship," Wyman said.
While in the car, Medvid removed his watch from the jar he carried and put it on, Wyman said. He also removed an official-looking paper from the jar, and removed a third object, which he threw out the window.
Wayne Wyman took the sailor to the French Quarter substation of the New Orleans Police Department, and let him out. Medvid tried to thank Wyman by shaking his hand and kissing it.
Sometime after 9 p.m., Medvid was delivered to the office of the Harbor Police of the Port of New Orleans. Because no one there could communicate with Medvid, the seaman was taken across the river to Algiers where the Border Patrol, a division of the INS, has its offices. No one there spoke Russian, so officials contacted interpreter Irene Padoch in New York City. The 30- to 60-minute phone conversation between Padoch and Medvid remains at the center of the controversy over the seaman.
It was a three-way conversation: Padoch in New York, Medvid in Algiers and a Border Patrol agent on an extension. Padoch says now she is convinced Medvid made his desire for asylum clear. The same conversation apparently convinced Border Patrol agents that Medvid was not seeking asylum.
INS officials in Washington confirm that border patrol agents did not contact Washington to seek guidance that night, and it is the behavior of those agents in Algiers that is the target of the Justice Department investigation.
At the conclusion of the conversation, the Border Patrol issued a "remand order," directing that Medvid be returned to his ship. INS officials in Washington say the Border Patrol contacted Universal Shipping Agents, the company handling the Soviet freighter while it is in port here.
What happened next comes from testimony in federal court by Michael Flad, the boarding agent for Universal, who was responsible for handling the Marshal Konev.
Flad and a driver, Tim Maslov, arrived to pick up Medvid about 12:40 a.m. They were given the seaman and a pair of plastic handcuffs by the Border Patrol and drove back to the river where Universal had hired a launch to ferry Medvid to his ship.
As the launch came abreast of the gangplank, the ship's second mate came down to greet them and appeared surprised to see Medvid. Flad said the second mate and Medvid spoke for about five minutes.
Seconds later, Medvid dived back into the Mississippi.
Medvid started to swim toward shore and the launch followed. Someone threw him a life ring, but he ducked under it. The mate ordered the launch back to the dock and it reached there just as Medvid was scrambling up on the boulders that line the bank.
As Medvid started to run, "the mate ran over and tackled him to the ground," Flad said, "and I arrived to help out. The man was kicking and punching. The second mate said to grab his legs and try to hold him." Medvid kicked Flad in the stomach and knocked him down.
With the help of Maslov, the mate subdued Medvid and twisted his arms behind him. Flad handed over the handcuffs from the Border Patrol and the mate slapped them on Medvid's wrists.
Medvid lay on the rocks and began to slam his head against them. The men moved Medvid to the muddy riverbank for his own protection, Flad said.
The launch then went back out to the ship, where curious seaman had gathered along the rail 40 feet above the water.
The captain and five sailors came onto the launch and returned to pick up Medvid. At 2:30 a.m., he was taken up the gang plank of the Marshal Konev, still screaming.
"I'm sorry this had to happen," Flad told the ship captain.
"Oh, no problem," the captain replied.
About 10 hours later, the State Department ordered the freighter held. The events that followed were described in detail by Roger P. Brandemuehl, assistant commissioner for the Border Patrol, during a conference on Nov. 1 before U.S. District Court Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer.
U.S. officials, Brandemuehl testified, asked that Medvid be allowed to leave the ship. The Russian captain initially rejected the request, but on Monday, Oct. 28, Medvid was allowed to leave.
He was taken to a Coast Guard buoy tender for questioning. With him were two officials of the Soviet Embassy, the ship's captain and the ship's doctor.
During several hours of questioning, Medvid was always in the presence of an official from the Soviet Embassy. Medvid told U.S. officials he was an electrician and his "assignment was to . . . walk around the decks to inspect the lighting" at night.
He said he had discovered some problems in one area, leaned overboard to try to examine it, fell overboard and swam to shore.
Brandemuehl said he was asked if he wanted to remain in the United States, "at which time he said he did not want to remain in the United States."
During the interviewing, Medvid indicated he was not feeling well and was allowed to go up to the deck for some fresh air.
When the questioning resumed, Medvid said "he did not recall talking to an interpreter" on the day he plunged overboard, Brandemuehl said.
After consultations with Washington, the Americans decided to take him to shore for a physical examination and a night's sleep. The next day, he was examined by a physician but balked at undergoing a psychiatric examination, which, as a result, was terminated soon after it began.
The questioning by U.S. officials, in the presence of the Soviets, then resumed, but Medvid "appeared to be more belligerent," Brandemuehl testified. He said "that he wanted to return to his mother and father, and he said this on four separate occasions, with quite a bit of vehe- mence . . . . "
Ultimately, Medvid was handed "a statement in Russian by the State Department official," Brandemuehl testified. "In essence, it was a request that he be allowed to return home, and that he was doing this voluntarily, and that that was his desire." Medvid "took issue with a lot of different parts of it," Brandemuehl said. " . . . It became quite apparent that the Russian officials were somewhat embarrassed by what he was doing."
But "the substance" of his changes seemed "very minute. They were just small things," Brandemuehl said.
"The State Department official went to great lengths to assure Mr. Medvid that if he wanted or desired to stay in the United States, that he could do so, free of being imprisoned, and that he could insure that he would have his freedom here. He did this on . . . half a dozen occasions."
Medvid was returned to the ship 24 hours after being handed over to U.S. officials. He remains aboard.