The trial of the murderer of Brother Joseph Munoz-Cortes

Site page

The judicial proceedings in Athens were scheduled for November 18, 1998. Nicoulai Ciaru, a Romanian, stood before the Court, accused of having murdered brother Joseph on October 31, 1997. Archpriest Victor Potapov, his matushka Maria Potapova, and Maria (Shala) Rae came from Washington to attend the trial as representatives of the “Icon’s House.”

The judicial process continued for two days, the 18th and the 23rd of November 1998. For lack of irrefutable evidence, Ciaru was acquitted, and was deported to Romania. Another Romanian, Tundor Popa, currently being held in a Greek prison on other criminal charges, stood accused of the murder. A new investigation is under way, and it is expected that later this year, there will be a new trial in the matter of brother Joseph’s murder.

Shortly after his return from Greece, Fr. Victor shared his impressions with his parishioners.

We spent two weeks in Greece. Our delegation’s principal goal was to be present during the judicial proceedings in the matter of brother Joseph’s murder.

This was my sixth visit to Greece. On all of my previous visits I had been a pilgrim to Mt. Athos, and thus I could not assert that I knew Greece well. This time, thanks to the fact that we were primarily in Athens, visited holy sites on two islands and visited with a number of remarkable people, I became more intimately familiar with this country, and came to love it, first and foremost because Greece is a Holy Land. To a certain extent, it resembles Russia, nurtured by the blood of the New Martyrs. In Greece there shone forth a large host of martyrs, suffering for Christ at the hand of the Turks during the difficult era of Turkish rule.

The attorney invited by “Icon’s House to represent brother Joseph was a Godsend. We were introduced to him through brother Joseph’s friend Emmanuel (Manolis) Argiris, an ecclesiastical jeweler who had crafted the riza for the Miraculous Myrrh-streaming Iveron Icon of the Mother of God, and who later did the same for our copy of that icon. The attorney, named Ioannis, has a wonderful wife, Chrysoula. The young couple have six children. By the way, they are spiritual children of Athonite elders. They are intelligent, well read people. When we visited them at home, Chrysoula proudly showed us a whole stack of books, Greek translations of Russian religious writers and saints such as Theophanes the Recluse, Seraphim of Sarov, the Optina Elders, and others. The works of Russian religious writers are in great demand in Greece, and periodically, new translations appear. We visited a number of religious book stores and in them found entire departments filled with the classics of Russian religious literature.

Ioannis has a thriving legal practice. From our first moments with him, we sensed that he understood and took to heart the matter of brother Joseph. Chrysoula said that she knows her husband quite well, and is convinced that he will not drop the matter without seeing it through to the end.

We arrived in Athens on November 16th. For our own safety, in case anything should happen, we went the next day to register at the American Embassy. Then we visited the Canadian Embassy. Because brother Joseph was a citizen of Canada, the employees of the Canadian Embassy were interested in the progress of the investigation and trial. In that embassy, we met the General Consul and First Secretary of the Embassy Mr. Lanny Steinberg, as well as his assistant, an expert in the realm of Greek jurisprudence. During the trial, she sat next to me and translated the legal proceedings.

When we left the United States, we had hoped that brother Joseph’s sister, who lived in Florida, would appoint Ioannis to officially represent the family. However, to our profound disappointment, we learned in the Canadian Embassy that for inexplicable reasons, she would not sign the agreement.

Her refusal to grant authority to our attorney seriously complicated the matter. Without that authorization, Ioannis did not have the right to officially and directly participate in legal argument, to influence the course of judicial hearings, to call witnesses, to request the continued pursuit of a criminal investigation on the basis of new evidence and findings, to tell Court who brother Joseph was, to prove that Ciaru was bearing false witness, or to object to unfounded and arbitrary actions.

Nonetheless, as a man with connections, and one who had been touched to the depths of his soul by the picture of Joseph and his martyric end, Ioannis decided to continue to gather information and to participate, if only indirectly, in the trial.

On November 18th, on the first day of the proceedings, we arrived at the courthouse, a building which had formerly been part of a military officers’ academy. We were somewhat amazed by Greek judicial procedure. On the one hand Greece is a country with a European culture, but at the same time, in its public life, one feels the influence of the East. The trial was held in the 9th building of the city judicial complex, in a large building with many courtrooms. There were mobs of people. People walking along the corridors, smoky rooms, and no security checks. No one asked to examine either our papers or our personal effects.

The trial was to convene at 9:00 AM, but in fact began 1½ hours later. Our side was represented by: attorney Ioannis and his assistant; Archpriest Michel de Castelbajac, rector of the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, in Vichy (ROCOR), a priest who knew and loved brother Joseph; Fr. Michel’s matushka; Maria Rae; my matushka; the already-mentioned representative of the Canadian Embassy; and your humble servant.

In Greece, trials proceed in the following manner. Three judges convene, and from among the people, four jurors are selected. The presidium includes a prosecutor, the judges, the jurors, and the court clerk.

Soon the accused, Nicoulaj Ciaru was brought into the courtroom. This young, apparently athletic fellow was in Greece illegally; his arrival in the country coincided with the arrival of brother Joseph and Fr. Alexander Iwashewicz. As it later became clear, Ciaru had illegally crossed the Romanian border many times.

Overall, this is a great problem for Greece. Its prisons are filled to overflowing with many lawbreakers who come to Greece from Romania and especially from Albania and other Balkan countries, in search of income.

Ciaru took his seat in the middle of the room, directly opposite the presiding judge.

The judges sait on a dais, and the accused sat in a chair before them. During the proceeding, an appointed interpreter sat next to Ciaru, and translated the proceedings from Greek into Romanian.

At the beginning of the trial, our attorney moved that the trial be delayed for several days, on the grounds that he was engaged in FAX correspondence with brother Joseph’s sister in the matter of his being appointed to represent the family of the deceased. There was a brief adjournment to permit the Court to consider Ioannis’ motion. Soon the judges returned to the courtroom, and the presiding judge announced that because the family had had an entire year, more than enough time to obtain representation and to organize a defense of the murdered Joseph, the motion was denied. Unfortunately, one could not disagree with his conclusion.

Following that, jurors were selected, and a defense attorney was appointed for Ciaru. This was simply a formality, as the attorney had been appointed earlier, and as it came out in the course of the hearings, he had already met with the defendant in jail several times, and had formulated a defense strategy.

To our amazement, there were only five people on the witness list. Four were hotel employees - of the Alpha Hotel, where brother Joseph used to stay whenever he made a pilgrimage to Greece, and where, incidentally, we stayed (I rented the same room in which brother Joseph ordinarily stayed), and of the Grand Hotel, where brother Joseph was martyred. A fifth witness was a person who had lived together with the accused in a dormitory. These were the only witnesses! Inconceivable. The witness list did not include the following persons: Priest Alexander Iwashewicz, who accompanied brother Joseph throughout Greece and who was with him during the final two weeks of his life; Elena Sergeevna Golitsyn-Navarre, director of “Icon’s House,” who often talked to brother Joseph by telephone during the last two weeks of his life; Manolis Argiris, the ecclesiastical jeweler who was brother Joseph’s friend, and with whom he met every time he was in Greece, and whom he saw on the final day of his life on earth.

The four previously-mentioned witnesses were called to testify, and a number of depositions were taken, including the deposition of the maid who discovered the body of the murdered brother Joseph, and the written statement of a musician who had rented the room next to the one in which brother Joseph was brutally murdered.

During the presentation of testimony, the accused Ciaru often wept, sometimes copiously. It was understandable: he had been in jail for a year, waiting for this trial, and naturally was worried about his fate…

It is somewhat interesting to note that in America, during judicial proceedings the doors of the courtroom are shut, and a police officer is placed to guard them and to prevent people who have no connection to the proceedings from coming near. In Greece, everything is the reverse: The courtroom doors remain open, people come and go as they please, and often the noise in the corridors was so great that it was extremely difficult to hear what was being said. It seemed to us that casual visitors would come into the courtroom, sit for a while, then get up and leave.

During the second adjournment, we went out into the corridor to have a cup of coffee. Some time later, I returned to the courtroom, and to my amazement, saw Maria Rae standing next to Ciaru and talking with him!

When we first met Ioannis I had the idea of visiting Ciaru in prison, and attempting to influence him in a pastoral way, i.e. to evoke in him repentance, acknowledgment of his guilt, etc. The attorney liked this idea, and he intended to call the Ministry of Public Order to have me registered as an Orthodox priest. Without such registration, I would not be permitted to enter the prison.

Yet here was Maria Rae, standing and having an animated conversation with Ciaru. Later, she explained how she had come about. When the second break was announced and many left the room, there remained in the courtroom the defendant, the defense attorney, his assistant, the guards, witnesses, and …Maria Rae. Ciaru sat in front, not far from her. Maria fervently prayed that the Lord might permit her to speak with the accused. Unexpectedly, Ciaru turned to her, and with tears in his eyes, said “I did not kill him!” Now matter how strange this may seem, the guard, invited Maria to come closer.

When I saw Maria freely talking to Ciaru, I hurried to join them. Ciaro spoke little English. Maria and I admonished him to speak the truth. “Do you comprehend who brother Joseph was? He was the curator of the Myrrh-streaming Iveron Icon, the chosen one of the Mother of God.” We got the impression that Ciaru did not know this. We gave himi a reproduction of the Iveron Icon and an icon of the Guardian Angel which brother Joseph had written. Ciaru continued to weep and to assert “I did not kill him. I had nothing to do with it.”

Ciaru did not admit to anything, although before the trial persistent rumors circulated among people in the Church to the effect that he had confessed to everything. This proved to be untrue.

It is entirely possible that Ciaru did not kill brother Joseph, but there is no doubt that during the trial he lid in order to hide his involvement in a matter which he thought would not end in murder. The only items of evidence against him rested in the testimony of an employee of the Grand Hotel who, on that fateful night was working a shift at the reception desk, and who, on the following day went out onto the square with a police officer and pointed out Ciaru as one whom he had ostensibly seen with Joseph. A second witness, a mentally retarded Greek who lived with Ciaru in the dormitory of a Catholic church, affirmed that at about 3:00 AM on the night of October 30/31, Ciaru had returned to the dormitory in an agitated state.

Ioannis pointed out to us an interesting detail of the Greek system of justice. Before presenting testimony, all witnesses swear an oath on the Gospels - a small Book of the Gospels, encased in glass, and lying on an analogion which stands before the spot from which witnesses speak. According to Greek law, the accused is the only participant in the judicial process who does not swear such an oath. In his defense, the accused may use any available means, including hiding the truth. In other words, he can lie without suffering any consequences for it.

The matter stretched on. Quite frankly, I thought that inasmuch as this was the case of the murder of one foreigner by another, with no involvement by a citizen of Greece, it would not be a case of great interest to Greek society, and that accordingly the authorities would try to complete the trial quickly. But things took such a turn, that it became clear that the proceedings would a protracted.

The attorney for the accused Nicolai Ciaru dramatically announced "My client is not the murderer! The murderer is present in this room!" I do not speak Greek, and I learned everything that counsel for the defense said from notes furnished by the employee of the Canadian embassy, who diligently translated for me. However, the attorney also drew my attention by his dramatic and fiery presentation.

During the breaks, we had the opportunity to speak with Ciaru's attorney and to express our puzzlement by a number of things. "Why was it never mentioned to the Court that Joseph was curator of a precious icon which is honored by the entire Orthodox world, and which held a unique place in the world of the Church?" The attorney knew nothing of this, and was quite surprised to hear about Fr. Alexander Iwashewicz, who had accompanied brother Joseph on his final journey to Greece and about his detailed written account of the last days of his life. "Why was this document not translated and presented to the Court?" he asked. We happily furnished him with a copy of these materials about Joseph, which unfortunately we had been unable to give to the prosecutor because the investigation by the ministry of justice had been closed several months before the beginning of the judicial hearing.

During the trial, the principal prosecutor was in Thessalonika, and the prosecution was pursued by an assistant, who impressed us as a disinterested bureaucrat.

The Grand Hotel maid who had found Joseph's body testified at the trial. On the morning of October 31, she came to clean the room, and was unable to open the door with her key; later it turned out that the door had been locked from inside.

On May 13, 1998, matushka and Maria Rae were able to spend several hours in prayer in the room in which brother Joseph was tortured to death. Room 806 is a corner room with a balcony - the only one in the hotel with direct access to the roof of the adjacent building. Matushka explained to the defense attorney that the existence of that balcony sheds light on how the door could have been locked from within. The balcony enabled the murderers to enter the room with relative ease, and just as easily, to leave without being seen.

The defense counsel was shaken by this information and said that this is a matter which was well pre-meditated, and that its victims were not only Joseph but the defendant Ciaru.

Our attorney came to a similar conclusion, but with the material difference that Ciaru was used by the conspirators. Ioannis believes that Ciaru had some part in the crime, and played a specific role, and that his acquaintance with brother Joseph was not coincidental.

At the trial, Ciaru detailed his meetings with brother Joseph, accounts which were entirely inconsistent with brother Joseph's itinerary, one which was well known to many of his friends and co-workers. For example, Ciaru affirmed that he met with him in Athens on days in which Joseph had not been in Athens. Accounts by Fr. Alexander and others, and our attorney's participation in the trial could have proven to the judges the lack of credibility of various assertions of the accused. We said to Ciaru directly "We understand why you are lying. You are afraid for your own life and you know that if you speak the truth, you will face the same fate which met Joseph."

The following circumstances speak in Ciaru's favor. Had he committed the murder, he would have hidden from sight, and would have done everything possible to avoid being found on the next day in the square close by the Grand Hotel.

At the trial, it was established that on the morning of October 31 (Joseph was killed on the night of October 30-31) Ciaru tried to reach Joseph by telephone at the Alpha Hotel.

We got the impression that Ciaru somehow played a role in the conspiracy, possibly in bringing Joseph to the murderers, perhaps not fully aware that the matter would end so tragically.

Our attorney was saddened by the court's decision to release Ciaru, for he considered him to be a quite valuable witness. However, he was acquitted and deported to Romania, and was lost as a witness.

The prosecutor announced to the court that during the investigation of Joseph's murder, DNA and fingerprints belonging to Tundor Popa, another Romanian, were found at the scene of the crime, and that Popa was currently in jail for another violation of law.

At the end of the day, the senior judge announced that the matter would be continued, and that at the next session, he would demand the appearance of Tundor Popa, of the physician who had performed the autopsy, the technician who had analyzed the DNA and fingerprints, and that he wanted to see the Grand Hotel register, to determine who rented the room in which brother Joseph was killed, and that hold as material witnesses employees of both hotels.

The second day of the trial was November 23. Ciaru's attorney took all of our materials about brother Joseph to study them.

At the close of the first day of the trial, we returned to the Alpha Hotel, and in our rooms we left our bags, one of which contained video and still cameras, a professional tape recorder, and other equipment. We locked our rooms, left the keys with the clerk, and went to dinner.

After dinner, we walked in with Ioannis, in order to summarize what had happened on the first day of the trial, and to plan what to do next. On the next day, before going about our business, matushka discovered that the bag containing our equipment was empty; everything had been stolen.

I immediately went to the clerk and expressed my outrage at the theft, pointing out that our rooms had been locked, that the keys had been left with the clerk, and that the equipment could have been stolen only by someone with access to the keys. He denied that possibility, and assured me that we probably had taken the equipment with us and had forgotten it somewhere. This was impossible, for the bag which had contained the equipment was in the hotel room.

It is noteworthy that throughout the trial, hotel employees who had been called to testify continued to cast suspicious glances at us.

On the first day of the trial, I had wanted to photograph Nicholas Ciaru, but the guard would not permit me to do so. Then I pretended to photograph our group, intending to get Ciaru into the picture. I suspect that those who stole our equipment did so primarily because they were afraid that we were recording something they did not want us to, and "just in case," they wanted to frighten us. During his discussion with matushka, the defense counsel, the defense attorney loudly asked "How do you know about the balcony?" She responded just as audibly that several months earlier she had been in the room, and had even recorded it on videotape. Perhaps the people from the hotel wanted to get to our video and sound recording equipment to find and destroy incriminating video documentation. We reported the theft to the police, and they prepared a report.

At the behest of our attorney, we moved to another hotel.

On Friday November 20, Ioannis had a meeting with the physician who had performed the autopsy on brother Joseph's body. The physician had known nothing of Joseph's life or about the miraculous Icon of the Keeper of the Portal which Joseph had guarded over the course of 15 years.

Was brother Joseph's body embalmed? It is known that he was buried 13 days after his murder, and everyone including personnel of funeral homes both in Canada and in the USA were puzzled by the fact that there was no sign of corruption after a full 13 days.

We were able to find out the following: The funeral home in Athens told Ioannis that they had not embalmed him, because the matter was within the jurisdiction of office of the medical examiner, i.e. the physician performing the autopsy. Dr. Lefkidis, the doctor assigned by that office, affirmed that the deceased was not embalmed. He explained that in Greece, embalming involves the use of large amounts of formalin, a substance with such an intolerably strong smell, that the possibility of opening the lid of the coffin, much less the plastic body bag, was out of the question. Had brother Joseph been embalmed, the odor of formalin would have served as evidence. As we know, there was no smell of formalin.

On Sunday November 22, Ioannis took us along with his family to the monastery of St. Patapius, so that we might pray on the eve of the second day of judicial proceedings.

The final day of the trial began on November 23. The second Romanian, Tundor Popa, was brought in. When asked whether they knew one another, both Popa and Ciaru answered that they had never met.

One of the most important moments of that day, and perhaps of the entire proceeding, was the testimony of the physician. For approximately 40 minutes, the doctor gave a detailed description of the tortured death on Brother Joseph. Photographs of his tortured body were exhibited. It was difficult to listen to the testimony and to look at the photographs.

Perhaps the most important part of the physician's testimony was that he completely rebutted the slander which at the instigation of the enemy of our salvation had been disseminated from the moment of brother Joseph's death. In his 40-minute long presentation, he laid out in detail his findings and answered countless questions. Again and again he emphasized that brother Joseph's body bore no evidence other than evidence of torture.

Further, the doctor stated his opinion that the murder was committed by 2 to 3 people: one held him down, another tied his hands and feet, and a third struck the blows. The murder was carefully planned. They killed in a professional manner, while trying to "learn some information from their victim." Further, the doctor explained that in ordinary murders the victims are ordinarily tied up hurriedly and carelessly. Brother Joseph was tied up with extreme care, in a manner which would cause him the most possible pain.

The doctor suggested that Joseph unexpectedly found himself among his murderers and that he was in a state of shock - perhaps because he saw among them someone he knew. To this day, how he was tricked into coming to the place of his murder remains a mystery.

During the testimony the doctor speculated that the murders and Joseph had a short talk marked by threats, and followed by an assault upon him. The doctor said that in all probability, brother Joseph did not resist. He lay tied down across the bed. Marks of serious blows were found on his head and face, with evidence of hemorrhaging into his brain, hemorrhaging from his eyes, his cheeks cut apart by ropes, his larynx crushed. Signs of torture were also found on his legs, arms, and chest. The torture lasted for 1 1/2 hours. Joseph died slowly, and alone. The doctor believed that Joseph died between 2:30 and 3:00 at night, and that they murderers had sufficient time to cover their tracks.

At the trial, a written statement from a certain musician was entered into evidence. The musician had rented a room on the same floor as and near the room in which Joseph died. During the night he heard moans emanating from the room. A DNA expert then testified as to the results of her analysis.

Then the defense counsel mentioned the miraculous icon, and turned over to the judge a photograph which we had given him, showing brother Joseph holding the Myrrh-streaming Icon. The judge showed it to Tundor Popa and asked him if he knew the person in the photograph. Popa stated that he had never seen the man.

The judge then asked for the desk register of the Grand Hotel. The entries established that the room had not been rented by Brother Joseph. The judge and defense counsel thoroughly questioned the hotel employee, who affirmed that no one could have entered or left the hotel unnoticed, because the hotel had a single entrance, through the lobby. The judge asked if there were any other entrance. He replied that there was an additional door, but it was always kept locked. Ciaru’s attorney asked him about the balcony attached to the room in which brother Joseph had been killed, and by which once could cross to the roof of the adjacent building. The witness nodded, without saying anything, but his facial expression showed that the question made him somewhat uncomfortable.

It is noteworthy that in his appearances before the court, the prosecutor did not mention the balcony even once. The defense counsel brought this to the court’s attention only because we had told him about it. The existence of the balcony explained how the killers could enter and exit the room in the Grand Hotel and how the door could have been looked from within. One should also note that both hotels, the Grand Hotel and the Alpha are on the same block. It is quite conceivable that one could go from one to the other without using the main entrance.

In court it was established that the newly accused Tundor Popa had crossed into Greece illegally on nine occasions. When the judge asked him why his DNA and fingerprints were found in the murder victim’s room, he shrugged his shoulders and said “I don’t know, it was probably the work of the police.”

Popa is a young man with a clearly criminal appearance. At first they sat him next to Fr. Michael Castelbajac, then next to me. Throughout the trial, we continuously used our prayer ropes. Popa could not stand it, and asked to be transferred to another place.

The matter of brother Joseph’s murder is not closed. Folk wisdom states “God sees the truth, but does not speak too soon.” It may take time, but the truth about Joseph’s murder will be revealed. The instruments of the Greek justice system are undertaking a new investigation, which will probably last for another year. The following may occur during this time. Joseph’s sister may yet give the attorney the authority to represent the family at the next judicial proceeding. This would be extremely important, for a family attorney would have the right to demand various things of the court, would be able to influence the course of proceedings, to present witness list, etc. Attorney Ioannis will continue to be in touch with the prosecutor and will press for the prosecutor’s office to call as witnesses those who knew brother Joseph. In short, during this new investigation, much that today is hidden, may through the grace of God, become known.

On the next day, November 24, exactly 16 years since the Iveron Icon began to stream myrrh in Montreal, we visited the island of Andros and the monastery of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, where an ancient fresco of the Mother of God began to weep at the moment brother Joseph entered the monastery church on the eve of his martyrdom. The monks told us that the fresco of the Mother of God also wept on the first day of the trial. Archimandrite Dorotheus, the leader of the monastery said “Joseph was pure as a lily, and the Mother of God chose him as a lily for herself and for her miracle.”

“Remember O Lord, the soul of Thy servant who has fallen asleep, our brother Joseph, and make his memory to be eternal.”

Washington, D.C., 1999

Address of our Cathedral

  • 4001 17th St. N.W.,
  • Washington, D.C., 20011

Phone  (202) 726-3000




Go to top