Loren Wille, a 54-year-old international relief worker from Iowa who had been detained for five months in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, celebrated at home today after Georgian authorities unexpectedly dropped vehicular homicide charges against him.
Until he was told on Christmas Day that he was about to be freed, Wille's family had feared that officials in Georgia might link his release to that of a Georgian diplomat imprisoned in the United States in the drunk driving death of a 16-year-old girl in Washington nearly three years ago.
He arrived Tuesday at his family home in Belle Plaine, Iowa, exhausted and "extremely happy to be out," he said.
Wille suffered a broken collarbone, broken ribs and a punctured lung on July 21 when the sport-utility vehicle he was driving skidded on a rain-slicked road near Khashuri, about 125 miles west of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, killing his Georgian translator and injuring another passenger.
A former Peace Corps volunteer, he was in Georgia to assess whether his employer, Catholic Relief Services, should bid to become a U.S. foreign aid contractor there. He said he spent a week in a Georgian hospital under 24-hour guard, was released on his own recognizance with severe restrictions on his movements, then returned to the hospital for further treatment.
Wille was still in the hospital undergoing treatment when a government official called last week and said in a dour voice "that they were coming to pick me up."
"I feared for the worst, even though we had heard there was a good chance my case was not going to trial," Wille said in a telephone interview, adding that he realized his ordeal was over only when he saw his Georgian lawyer and friends from the relief agency walking down the hospital hallway with broad smiles and bottles of champagne.
"It was a good day to get good news," he said. "It was a tremendous relief."
Throughout his detention, Wille's sister-in-law, Margaret Wille, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) waged a campaign for his release, fearing that he could receive a harsh sentence in retaliation for the imprisonment of former Georgian diplomat Gueorgui Makharadze.
Makharadze was a rising young star in the Georgian diplomatic service when, after drinking at a restaurant on Jan. 3, 1997, he caused an accident at Dupont Circle that killed Joviane Waltrick. Although he was protected from prosecution by diplomatic immunity, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, under intense U.S. pressure, waived the immunity and Makharadze was sentenced to 7-to-21 years at a federal prison in Butner, N.C.
He is awaiting the outcome of his request to serve out his term in his home country, as authorized in a treaty between the United States and Georgia.
Wille said he was aware of the official positions taken by both the U.S. and Georgian governments that there was no connection between the two cases.
"But the average man in the street felt there was, so it certainly played a role in public opinion and probably within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, too," Wille said. He noted that Shevardnadze was subjected to intense criticism for waiving Makharadze's immunity at a time of parliamentary elections in Georgia.
The case was particularly sensitive for Shevardnadze because the Clinton administration, which provides more than $80 million a year in aid to the small, impoverished nation, has supported the Georgian leader against his political rivals.
Wille said that, after spending time with his family and thanking his supporters, he plans to return to field work with Catholic Relief Services in Armenia, where he had been based when sent on temporary assignment to Georgia.
"I don't think I'll be going back to Georgia," he said.
The relief worker said that one good development to come out of his ordeal was that the road where his accident occurred has been repaved and new caution signs have been erected.