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.

During his deposition, Napolitano said he thought Carnaby was an arrogant man. When asked if Carnaby thought of himself as above the law, Napolitano said, "I think that he wanted to be immune from prosecuting [sic] because he liked to operate...thinking that he could do certain things that other people couldn't."
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Roland Carnaby was born in Lebanon in 1955. His father, Vincent Said Karnabe (Carnaby later changed the spelling of his last name), is the owner of a Beirut shipping company. In the early 1980s, the elder Karnabe sent his son to New York City to work at a shipping line called Constellation Navigation to learn about the business, according to Carnaby's mentor, Kevin Shields, who knew the family. For a year, Carnaby lived in Greenwich Village and worked at the Woolworth building just blocks away from the World Trade Center.

"I know Roland's godfather was one of the leaders in Lebanon, and I know that his father is very influential over there because of his former position in the government," Shields says. "His father had connections with every businessman in the country. Anybody who wanted to see the president of Lebanon went through Karnabe Sr., so he knew where every bit of money was being made, every bit of shipping was being done and how the ports worked. He was presidential-like, a statesman."

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.

The Karnabes were also rich.

"The family certainly didn't have any problems with money," says Shields. "You got the impression that no matter what Roland wanted to do, the father would've set him up with a business. It wouldn't have been a question if Roland had said, 'I want a shoe store'; he would have bought him a shoe store. It was as simple as that."

After a brief marriage in New York, Carnaby moved to Texas in the mid-1980s and married Paula Burch, who now lives in Willis. She declined to comment for this story. They were married for several years, but divorced in 1992. At one point, Carnaby became a U.S. citizen. His next wife, Susan, says she and Carnaby started dating just before his divorce from Burch was finalized.

Carnaby was a little man, 5-foot-4, about 150 pounds, with slicked-back silver hair and a short black moustache. He had dark, Middle-Eastern skin, and many people thought he was Italian. In fact, his nickname was Tony Luciano. But what he lacked in size he more than made up for in personality.

His wife and friends say he wore silk shirts, sports coats and lizard boots and would often say, "Don't touch the hair." He is described as a gregarious, intense man with a temper and his own brand of humor.

For more than ten years, Carnaby hung out every day at his friend Alan Helfman's Chrysler dealership in River Oaks, working on his computer and telling stories to Helfman's employees and customers about his covert work for the intelligence community. Sometimes he'd even sing opera. Carnaby was well liked by almost everyone and enjoyed showing off his latest police gadgets. Helfman says that Carnaby was never without a gun and knife and wasn't afraid to joke around with them, either.

During lunch one afternoon at Goode's Armadillo Palace on Kirby Drive, Carnaby yanked out his knife and flipped it across the dining room, landing the blade straight in the floor, says Helfman. When asked why he did it, Carnaby said, "Oh man, gotta sharpen my knife and make sure it works right."

Another time, a Helfman salesman tried to pull a prank on Carnaby by turning off the lights while Carnaby was using the toilet. Carnaby would have the last laugh, though, scaring the salesman when he loudly clicked a round into the chamber of his handgun in the dark.

"It was his way of making a joke, I think," says Helfman.

Nearly everyone who knew Carnaby remembers him as a show-off. Most say his stories and bluster were his way of compensating for a lack of confidence.

"He was insecure," says Susan Carnaby. "I always told him, 'Why are you always bragging so much?' I think it was because he was so short, like a Napoleonic complex or something."

That streak in him continued right up until the end, says Jim Sullivan, who used to work at a Valero gas station on Memorial Drive. He says Carnaby, who was a regular customer, came into the station the night before he was shot with a young blond woman on his arm, claiming to be the director of the CIA. Sullivan says it looked like Carnaby was drunk.

Carnaby liked his whiskey, friends say, and he loved to socialize. So it was a job made in heaven for him when he volunteered to be president of the Houston chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.

AFIO President Poteat, whose organization has roughly 5,000 members across the country and counts former President George H.W. Bush and former CIA Director James Woolsey among its honorary board members, says Carnaby was good at recruiting members and getting high-profile speakers to come to Houston.

"We considered [his death] a tragedy," says Poteat. "I spoke at a dinner once and was very impressed with who showed up."

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