An Ex-Green Beret and an Airport Security Fail: How Former Nissan Boss Carlos Ghosn Escaped Japan
Carlos Ghosn shared his secretive escape flight from Japan with a pair of Americans who have backgrounds in the private security business. One was a former Green Beret who has extensive experience in extracting hostages but also went to jail for fraud.
The manifest of the getaway flight from Osaka to Istanbul doesn’t list Ghosn, but it includes two passengers named Michael Taylor and George-Antoine Zayek, according to people familiar with the matter.
For Taylor, the episode was the latest in a colorful career that began as a Special Forces paratrooper before he worked undercover for U.S. law enforcement and built a security firm that pursued contracts around the world. He emerges both as a murky and unusually public figure who found himself on both sides of the law.
Ghosn flew on to Lebanon, where he’s a citizen. The country has no extradition treaty with Japan, where he was out on bail while awaiting trial for financial fraud.
The former Nissan Motor boss said in a statement from Lebanon that he escaped without his family’s help. Citing an unidentified person familiar with the matter, Dow Jones said Monday that the team behind the extraction was made up of 10 to 15 people of different nationalities. Kansai Airport in Osaka was chosen as the exit point because of a “huge security hole” there as the terminal for private jets was essentially empty and the scanners weren’t big enough for oversize luggage, the report said. The team took more than 20 trips to Japan and visited at least 10 airports while planning the escape, it said.
It’s unclear how Ghosn came into contact with Taylor and Zayek — or if they’re the only ones who aided his dramatic journey. But the three men share close ties to Lebanon, where Ghosn spent much of his childhood.
Ghosn, 65, and the two Americans are believed to have left Japan on Dec. 29 aboard a charter jet that was operated by Turkey’s MNG Holding. The Wall Street Journal first reported Ghosn’s flight companions. The New York Times reported that Taylor and Ghosn were introduced by Lebanese intermediaries months ago.
The cinematic details of Taylor’s life are detailed in court documents, news reports, books and the website for his Boston-area company, American International Security Corp. At one point, he was hired by The New York Times to work in a high-profile hostage case.
‘Snatch and Grab’
After reporter David Rohde was kidnapped in Afghanistan in 2008, Taylor told Rohde’s wife, Kristen Mulvihill, that he could stage a rescue without ransom, as he said he had done in previous cases.
“Snatch and grab,” Taylor said, according to Mulvihill, who wrote a book about the kidnapping with her husband. Rohde later escaped without help.
Taylor, 59, was born in Staten Island, New York, and adopted by a stepfather who was a career soldier. After graduating from high school in Massachusetts, Taylor served four years in a U.S. Army Special Forces unit, parachuting into hot spots from as high as 40,000 feet.
He first went to Beirut in 1982, after the assassination of the Lebanese president-elect and the Israeli invasion. He helped train Lebanese combat forces and began a “lifelong relationship with the Christian community in Lebanon,” according to a sentencing memorandum in federal court in Utah, where he pleaded guilty more than six years ago. He met his wife, Lamia, and married her in 1985, before moving back to suburban Boston, and raising three sons.
Taylor, who learned Arabic and developed contacts throughout Lebanon and the Middle East, lent his skills to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Taylor served as a reservist for a decade and was activated for the Gulf War in 1991 but was unable to deploy. He was working at the time as an undercover operative in a U.S. investigation of hashish trafficking and money laundering in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, according to the memo.
The operation ended with the seizure of three tons of hashish in 1991.
Taylor then returned to Lebanon as a private contractor who trained Lebanese Christian forces. In 1992, he helped U.S. officials investigate a group suspected of making high-quality counterfeit $100 bills. He determined that these “supernotes” were “being created by a group of Iranians who had worked for the Shah prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979,” according to the memo.
Taylor has worked for the U.S. government and private clients such as ABC, Delta Airlines and Disney on Ice. His firm has offered personal protection, employing ex-military personnel, former cops and retired Secret Service agents. Its website says “there is a professional available for emergencies, while also providing a strong presence to deter any potential stalking, attack, theft or crime committed during the detail.”
As an experienced secret operative, he was apparently well versed in the art of sharing information on a need-to-know basis. Contacted by phone on Friday, Taylor’s wife, Lamia, said she was unaware of whether her husband participated in Ghosn’s flight from Japan.
“I don’t know about that,” she said. Asked whether her husband could come to the phone or return a call, she said Taylor wasn’t available. “He’s out of the country,” she said.
Less is known about Zayek, who worked with Taylor’s firm, according to online profiles and filings, as well as at least one other security company. Zayek is also part of a family of Lebanese Maronite Christians.
Taylor’s firm secured $54 million in Pentagon contracts, for work including training special forces in Afghanistan, court records show. In 2010, he and his firm became the subject of a grand jury investigation in Utah for contract fraud and money laundering. Taylor eventually pleaded guilty to wire fraud and honest services fraud and was sentenced to 24 months in prison.
Two other men pleaded guilty, including a 24-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who accepted bribes as part of an effort to obstruct the grand jury investigation. The former agent was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Taylor was previously indicted in Massachusetts on charges including illegal wiretapping and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, prosecutors said during his federal case. They also said that he bribed a federal agent in another instance who was investigating him for labor racketeering. “Giving federal agents money is nothing new to Mr. Taylor,” Maria Lerner, U.S. prosecutor, said at his sentencing hearing in 2015.
At the time of his arrest in 2012, Taylor was “the key player and critical link in one of the most important DEA operations in history,” according to his sentencing memo, which redacts details of the investigation. The memo referred to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.
After having $5 million in company assets seized, Taylor received $2 million back from authorities as well as a tax refund. He started rebuilding his business. His work has included rescuing children in spousal kidnappings. Now he has added the former Nissan executive whose supporters believe he was the victim of a Japanese judicial system stacked against defendants.
One mother praised Taylor in writing to his sentencing judge for helping secure her abducted daughter’s release in Lebanon in 1997.
“I know that my connection with Michael was more than just a job,” the mother wrote. “His heart and soul guided him step by step to always do the right thing.”
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—7 M&As that defined a decade of dealmaking and reshaped the economy
—3 charts that prove patent power is tilting in Asia’s favor
—Rwanda is bringing tech buzz to Africa
—The Starbucks of China is paving a new future for retail. Will it pay off?
—2020 Crystal Ball: Predictions for the economy, politics, technology, etc.
Catch up with Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily digest on the business of tech.