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The story behind the Mass. native and ex-soldier who purportedly helped former Nissan CEO escape

Michael Taylor coached football at Lawrence Academy.
Michael Taylor coached football at Lawrence Academy. Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

In his 20s during the Cold War, Michael Taylor was part of a secretive military team tasked with stopping a Soviet invasion of Europe with hand-carried “suitcase nukes.”

Later in the Middle East, while running his own security company, Taylor stopped “armed criminals who sought to take us hostage,” one grateful client said.

At home in Harvard, he’s a father of three, the neighbor who plows your driveway. But work acquaintances describe the square-jawed Taylor as a real-life action hero, a fearless patriot who decorates his office in American flags and considers the national anthem his favorite song. Tales of his exploits — culled from interviews and court documents — seem ripped from a Tom Clancy novel.

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He has carried out overseas rescues and undercover drug-trafficking work. In the world of international security, he has established himself as a fix-it man with a Rolodex of high-level foreign contacts.

And now, in what may be his most daring — or brazen — escapade yet, Taylor is reportedly the man behind the audacious flight of former Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn out of Japan to escape financial charges.

“I frankly wasn’t surprised to hear of his involvement,” said Paul Kelly, a former federal prosecutor who has known Taylor since the early 1990s. “That’s the kind of work Michael does.”

Throughout Taylor’s daring career, however, there have been hints that he was not always the clean-cut hero described by friends, but rather a man whose exploits brought him close to the margins of the rules — and on some occasions far enough beyond to face legal consequences.

Whether he is a hero or an opportunist — that depends who you ask.

Always a standout

Even in the adrenaline-soaked world of the US Special Forces, Michael Taylor stood out.

Taylor, handsome and athletic, grew up in Ayer, a well-liked student who cocaptained the high school football team. After high school, he joined the Army, following in the footsteps of his stepfather, and quickly established himself as a rising star.

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He qualified for elite forces at a young age, and took hair-raising assignments, according to court papers. He was part of a special unit trained to jump from high-altitude aircraft and free-fall up to 5 miles before releasing his parachute just 2,000 feet from the target. For the Army’s super-secret Special Atomic Demolition Munition program, according to court records, he was to parachute into to what was then the East German border, using a portable nuclear device to “destroy, irradiate, or otherwise compromise” the path of an invading Soviet Army.

In 1982, after the assassination of Lebanon’s president-elect, Taylor was on the first US Special Forces team deployed to Beirut, a city besieged by the carnage of Lebanon’s civil war.

“It was the most dangerous place on earth at the time,” Taylor said in interviews conducted by e-mail last week.

Honorably discharged in November 1983, he returned to Massachusetts. In 1984, he was accused of a sexual assault on a female soldier stationed at Fort Devens, according to a 1996 story in the Boston Phoenix. Taylor vehemently denied the charge to the Globe, saying a “crooked” female police officer invented the story and that he was out of the country at the time. According to the Phoenix story, Taylor was arrested, but the case was later dismissed.

By then, Lebanon was calling him back.

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Taylor said in an e-mail that he had been troubled during his time there in the Army by the religious divide that fueled the violence. Now, he returned as a private contractor to train Lebanese Christian forces. He began learning Arabic, met a Lebanese woman who would become his wife, and established contacts, according to court papers, with a “variety of individuals from all manner of backgrounds.”

In 1985, Taylor returned to Massachusetts, buying a house in Harvard. But Lebanon — and the intrigue he seemed drawn to — would stay at the center of his life and work. In the years that followed, he traveled repeatedly to the Middle East, commanding big money for daring missions and operating in the shadowy world of domestic and international security.

The US government tapped him in 1988 to go undercover and infiltrate a Lebanese organized crime ring that spanned from the Middle East to Massachusetts. He got close to powerful figures in the organization, according to prosecutors and court documents, and ultimately worked his way to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where he filmed Syrian-controlled drug fields. Authorities later seized $100 million in hashish from a boat and credited Taylor as a key.

A company Taylor started, American International Security Corp., provided protection for corporations, including oil companies and airlines. On various occasions, he was hired to extract individuals from high-risk situations, including a young girl whose father had abducted her to Lebanon, according to court papers.

Between overseas missions, he led the fairly ordinary life of a suburban dad. He played pick-up basketball and patrolled the outfield for a local softball team. In testimonial letters filed in a court case, neighbors and other residents in Harvard and nearby communities wrote effusively of his dedication to the community. He plowed people’s driveways, spent time with local youth.

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In most ways, Taylor said in e-mails to the Globe, his was no different from a typical family. “It’s just that when I was working I had a longer commute than most.”

But even in this life, Taylor appeared to tend toward extremes.

In 2008, he became head football coach at Lawrence Academy in Groton, and quickly built a winning team. It was so good it raised eyebrows.

He developed a reputation for racking up lopsided victories, and questions circulated about the team’s plethora of talented and physically large players. In one year alone, Taylor fielded a team with seven players who went on to sign with Division I colleges, unheard of in New England’s Independent School League. And in 2010, the team made national headlines after St. George’s School in Rhode Island refused to take the field against Lawrence Academy, citing concerns for player safety.

“To put it in context, they were bigger across the [offensive] line than the starting line at the University of Michigan that year,” said a former Independent School League coach who spoke on the condition his name not be published. “They were clearly talented kids, you can’t argue with that. But . . . I think people were scratching their heads for the most part, saying, ‘What the heck?’ ”

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Taylor coached for three seasons at the school before resigning in 2011 amid a swirl of controversy. Shortly after his departure, the league handed down several sanctions, stripping Lawrence Academy of two league titles won under Taylor and banning it from postseason play for three years. Officials at Lawrence Academy eventually acknowledged that, among other infractions, several student-athletes had been funded “beyond their demonstrated need.”

By e-mail, Taylor said that he did nothing wrong.

“The facts are I did not run admissions, I did not have anything to do with what students got financial aid. Nor did I or any of the athletic staff break rules.”

He said his resignation stemmed from a rule implemented by the school’s then-headmaster that the team couldn’t score more than 34 points in a game.

One way or another, trouble seemed to follow Taylor at various stages of his career. While Taylor was working undercover on the federal drug trafficking investigation, a Massachusetts state trooper named Robert Monahan began investigating Taylor, according to a complaint the trooper later filed against the State Police.

Monahan believed that Taylor — who in addition to working in his undercover capacity was a licensed private investigator — was also engaging in criminal activity outside the scope of the trafficking investigation, according to the complaint.

Monahan claimed that his investigation had determined that Taylor — identified in the suit as “John Doe” — had employed members of the Massachusetts State Police to carry out illegal wiretaps. Additionally, he alleged, Taylor paid a State Police trooper to make a traffic stop on a person in a divorce case after Taylor had used an “illegal wiretap” to learn that person would be in possession of marijuana.

Taylor said in e-mails that Monahan was simply mistaken. During his work on the trafficking case, he said, it was necessary for the government to create a false persona for him in order to penetrate the criminal organization. Monahan believed the undercover persona to be real, he said, “and after being told by both federal authorities and his own authorities, he continued to make false accusations, jeopardizing the real case.”

Monahan said in his complaint that he was ordered by superiors to drop the case, and that he was eventually stripped of virtually all police duties and responsibilities.

“His career has been ruined,” his lawyers wrote in the complaint.

In 1998, Monahan was awarded $1.15 million in damages.

Taylor, for his part, was charged with several felony wiretapping and related charges.

According to a 2001 story in the Boston Herald, he eventually pleaded guilty in 1999 to planting marijuana in the car of a client’s estranged wife and persuading an officer to arrest her. The other charges were continued without a finding.

“Look, I have a high regard for Michael, but he is a controversial figure in the sense that he gets involved in some really dangerous stuff,” said Kelly, who prosecuted the Lebanese drug case. “But as a former federal prosecutor who worked closely with him for many months, I found him to be smart, reliable, and professional.”

Trouble with the law

Bigger trouble would come in 2011, when Taylor was investigated for allegedly paying kickbacks to obtain training contracts in Afghanistan from the Department of Defense worth approximately $54 million, according to court documents.

That spring Taylor went to a football game at Bryant University in Rhode Island, where he met a 24-year FBI veteran, a counterintelligence special agent named Robert Lustyik. The two had much in common in their work, and chatted about their careers. At some point, according to the court papers, the agent mentioned he was planning to retire soon.

That, apparently, provided an opening, and over the next months, the two talked of the possibility of Lustyik coming to work for Taylor, according to court documents. The talks, prosecutors said, led to an arrangement: Lustyik would get a six-figure salary and a share of the proceeds from various multimillion-dollar business deals Taylor was pursuing.

Prosecutors said Taylor involved another man, Johannes W. Thaler of Connecticut, and told both in an e-mail: “I’ll make you guys more money than you can believe, provided they don’t think I’m a bad guy and put me in jail.”

In exchange Lustyik tried to get the case against Taylor quashed, telling investigators the ex-soldier was a confidential source for the FBI, according to prosecutors, and even intervened directly by conducting his own interviews of key witnesses.

Lustyik pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges in 2014 and was sentenced to 10 years in jail, while Thaler received 13 months.

Taylor pleaded guilty to one count of violating the federal Procurement Integrity Act and one count of wire fraud. Facing sentencing, Taylor collected dozens of testimonial letters — including one from Barbara Auterio, who once worked as his receptionist. “His favorite song is the national anthem,” she wrote. His lawyers submitted a lengthy narrative depicting Taylor as community stalwart and a hero who had repeatedly risked his life for the sake of others. He was sentenced to two years. Authorities also agreed to return $2 million of the roughly $5.3 million seized from American International Security Corp. bank accounts — as well as two Land Rovers.

Arguing for a stronger sentence in court, federal prosecutor Maria Lerner said Taylor is “someone who minimizes their involvement, shifts the blame to others, and reinvents his own role to suit his perception of who he is.”

His lawyers said the case destroyed Taylor’s security business, and he appeared to switch gears afterward, cofounding a company that made a low-calorie vitamin water billed as a healthier alternative to sugary sports drinks.

Former Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski ran a youth football camp sponsored by the water.

Over the course of the next few years, Taylor devoted himself to the new business — marketing the drink and the business and managing to avoid the spotlight.

And then came the case of Carlos Ghosn, whose flight from Japan, he claimed, was the result of concerns he couldn’t receive a fair trial there on charges of financial misconduct.

The details, as reported last week by the Wall Street Journal, are sensational.

From Tokyo, a furtive ride in a high-speed “bullet train” to Osaka, where in a hotel room he squeezed into in a music equipment box with breathing holes punched into it. A flight on a private jet to Turkey, followed by a mad dash, under the cover of a predawn rainstorm, to another plane bound for Lebanon.

In his e-mails to the Globe, Taylor said he was overseas but declined to say where. He also declined to discuss specifics of the Ghosn caper — even to confirm his participation.

Asked what brought him back into the world of international security after what appeared to be a significant hiatus, he replied, “When people have nowhere to turn, your heart goes out to them.”


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett. Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this story.