Spy Story

Con man or super spook — either way, Roland Carnaby wasn't supposed to meet his death on a Houston highway in a high-speed chase with the cops.

Roland Carnaby was on the run. Pulled over going 75 in a 60, he'd panicked and taken off from the traffic cop and now was racing along Highway 288 at nearly 120 miles per hour with police officers right on his tail.

A Houston Police Department officer named Charles Starks had stopped him driving his Jeep Commander a little before 10 a.m. on April 29, 2008. Carnaby announced he was CIA and pulled out his credentials. Starks asked for a phone number to call to verify Carnaby's claim. Carnaby gave him one, but said that probably no one was there. When Starks asked to hold the CIA badge, Carnaby refused, citing "national security" issues.

Following procedure, Starks ran Carnaby's driver's license and found that the silver-haired man in the dark suit had been arrested, but not convicted, in 1992 in Montgomery County for disorderly conduct. Police records showed Carnaby had a concealed-handgun license and that his car was registered to something called the National Security Command Center, with an address that Starks thought looked like it was in a strip mall in town. It didn't make sense to Starks that a CIA officer would need a concealed-handgun license or that he'd have an arrest record. And what was up with that odd registration and address?

Carnaby's spy friends say Carnaby must have been working with the CIA to be allowed behind the seal at the agency's Virginia headquarters. The CIA, however, says that's not necessarily true.
Courtesy Susan Carnaby
Carnaby's spy friends say Carnaby must have been working with the CIA to be allowed behind the seal at the agency's Virginia headquarters. The CIA, however, says that's not necessarily true.
Though it appears Carnaby did provide information to U.S. intelligence officers, it is unlikely that his death will merit a star on the CIA's wall commemorating the agency's fallen heroes.
Courtesy Susan Carnaby
Though it appears Carnaby did provide information to U.S. intelligence officers, it is unlikely that his death will merit a star on the CIA's wall commemorating the agency's fallen heroes.

That's when Carnaby called Frank ­Zavala, an HPD Internal Affairs officer he knew, and told Zavala that Starks was giving him a hard time. He passed his cell phone to Starks, who told Zavala that Carnaby was acting strangely. Zavala said he knew Carnaby and thought Carnaby was in the CIA, but that he wasn't completely sure. Before hanging up the phone, Starks said that he was going to write up an incident report and then let Carnaby go. Zavala then called Carnaby back and relayed the news.

But Starks was not finished. He called HPD's Major Offenders Division and spoke to a sergeant, who then called an officer assigned to the department's interjurisdictional squad with the FBI. The officer told the sergeant that Carnaby was not a CIA agent and had done this type of thing in the past. The sergeant told Starks to arrest Carnaby on traffic charges and confiscate the CIA badge for further investigation.

Starks walked up to Carnaby and told him to get out. Carnaby refused. "Don't do this to me," he said.

Then Carnaby took off. He frantically called Zavala back.

"Hey Frank, I fucked up," Carnaby said on his cell phone. He said he was scared. "This might be a setup."

"Set up by whom?" Zavala asked.

Carnaby wasn't sure. "Maybe the agency," he said.

Zavala told Carnaby to pull over and obey the officer.

"I can't," Carnaby said, and hung up.

Carnaby sped onto Interstate 45 North and over to Interstate 10 and onto Houston's West Loop. By this time, several police cars were chasing him with sirens blaring while helicopters overhead taped the action for the TV news.

From the car, Carnaby made another call, this time to his friend of more than 15 years, Dennis Franks, a supervisory special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Houston. Carnaby told Franks that he had shown Starks a CIA badge that he sometimes used but that the officer was uncooperative. Franks kept telling Carnaby to pull over. Carnaby said he was heading to the FBI field office and that he had to get himself out of the jam, but he was running low on gas.

Meanwhile, Starks had gotten off the police radio after telling his fellow officers that Carnaby might be an armed impersonator.

About 15 minutes into the high-speed chase, Carnaby took the Woodway exit off the 610 Loop. He flew through a red light and drove south on the service road until finally coming to a sudden stop in the right lane near Buffalo Bayou. Starks and the other officers slammed on their brakes and stopped just feet from Carnaby's vehicle. Carnaby had run out of gas.

After a few moments, supervising Sergeant Andrew Washington and Officer Cecil Foster ran over to the passenger's side window of Carnaby's Jeep and yelled for him to roll down the heavily tinted window. At least one officer at the scene had left his siren on, and it was almost impossible for the officers to hear one another. None of the cops used their loudspeakers.

Carnaby lowered the window slightly but refused to get out, and then rolled the window back up.

The next minute was chaos. Officers were screaming, "Get back; get back." One shouted, "He said he was CIA."

Foster grabbed his baton with two hands and began swinging against the Jeep's front passenger window. It took five blows to shatter the glass.

Carnaby was on the phone with Franks, who could hear the window explode. Then the line went dead.

In the same instant, Carnaby opened his door and placed his left leg on the pavement as Foster stuck his head and shoulders through the broken window with his gun pointed at Carnaby. Officers yelled, "Hands up, hands up. Get on the ground." While exiting the car, Carnaby bent over, as if he were trying to grab something underneath his seat or on the floorboard. At the same time, Washington had made his way around the front of the Jeep over to Carnaby.

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