Among Paul Le Roux’s former employees, Joseph Hunter was perhaps the most mystifying. He was also the man whose story had pulled me into Le Roux’s world in the first place. And like Le Roux himself, Hunter was often described in larger-than-life terms, a remorseless mercenary who was bred by the U.S. military, then went horribly rogue. On Le Roux’s behalf, he’d allegedly arranged the murder of Catherine Lee, the Filipino real estate agent, and bragged about it, critiquing the assassins for their tactical blunders. He was, in the words of one Le Roux employee, “a real hardass”; he picked up the improbable nickname Rambo, and he looked the part. In photos he was a hulking, barrel-chested man with a gaze that alternated between penetrating and vacant. As an assassin he was famous the world over, but the further I delved into Le Roux’s empire, the more complicated the story seemed.
A former soldier from Kentucky, the 47-year-old Hunter was one of a few Americans in the upper reaches of Le Roux’s operation, which was full of Israelis, South Africans, and Brits. Hunter had enlisted in the Army in 1983 and joined the Rangers two years later. But in 1986, a friend in his unit was killed during a training exercise.
Hunter, deeply traumatized by the death, was medically discharged from the Rangers after just eight months. He spent the rest of his 21- year military career as a drill sergeant and sniper instructor, with posts in Germany, Panama, and Puerto Rico, rising to the rank of sergeant first class. By his own description, Hunter also worked as “a special-reaction team commander, serving high-risk warrants, doing law-enforcement training, and providing security for doctors and nurses.” Hunter earned both a National Defense Service Medal and a Global War on Terrorism Medal. His home state named him a Kentucky Colonel, an honorific reserved for Kentuckians “unwavering in devotion to faith, family, fellowman, and country.”
Discharged in 2004, Hunter returned to his hometown of Owensboro, a city of 50,000, with his wife, his two boys, and a pair of dogs. His mother and sister lived nearby. Law enforcement seemed like a logical next step, so he took and passed the New York City police exam, but decided the city was too expensive. Instead he got a job as an inmate counselor at the Green River Correctional Complex, an hour drive from home.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were at their peak, as were the jobs with private security firms, which promised large paychecks and the chance to see real action. Bored with civilian life, Hunter quit the prison in 2006 and signed on with Dyncorp, a McLean, Virginia, contractor with close ties to the U.S. military. After a two-year stint, he spent another year with a similar outfit, Triple Canopy.(The Panama Papers leak recently revealed that Triple Canopy, which has received more than a billion dollars in U.S. government contracts over the past decade, operated a series of shell companies overseas.) Hunter’s assignments included providing security at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and investigating suicide bombings.
While he was in the Army, Hunter’s family had found him increasingly short-tempered. His time in Iraq, by his own account, exacerbated his moodiness and explosive anger. He had trouble sleeping and startled easily.
In 2007, a former soldier introduced Hunter to Le Roux, describing him as a wealthy South African businessman looking for security personnel. Hunter jumped at the chance to leave the war behind…