Moammar Gadhafi will always be a part of Colorado history

Moammar Gadhafi's future is looking dim right now, as the people of Libya continue to rebel and the U.S. freezes the dictator's assets. It's the latest phase in a strange and decades-long relationship between the North African nation and the United States -- a relationship that includes a particularly strange Colorado chapter.

In 1980, a Libyan graduate student studying at Colorado State University in Fort Collins was shot and nearly killed as he answered a knock on his apartment door. Faisal Zagallai, then 36, was the son of a former mayor of Tripoli, but had become an outspoken critic of Gadhafi and his regime. Four months after the shooting, federal agents arrested a 45-year-old former Green Beret named Eugene Tafoya, charging him with attempted murder and conspiracy. They said Tafoya had been working for Gadhafi or for agents working on his behalf -- but a a jury eventually found Tafoya guilty only of assault.

This news stunned Time, which wrote a 1981 editorial that included this passage:

"Misdemeanor for a shooting.

"After listening to three weeks of sharply conflicting evidence, studying 28 separate instructions on the law from the judge, and going into seclusion to weigh six possible guilty verdicts, the jurors in a Fort Collins, Colo., courthouse had every right to be confused. At issue were such wispy questions as whether Eugene Tafoya, 45, a much decorated former Green Beret, was working for the CIA or, in effect, for Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, when Tafoya knocked on the door of Libyan Student Faisal Zagallai, 36, in Fort Collins on Oct. 14,1980, and left the outspoken anti-Gaddafi dissident lying on the floor with two bullet wounds in his head.

"The jury deliberated for three days before finally rendering a verdict that was almost as mystifying as the case itself. The jury found Tafoya guilty only of two misdemeanors: third-degree assault and conspiracy to commit this assault. Maximum sentence: 24 months and a $5,000 fine.

"Had he been convicted of attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder, as the prosecution charged, he would have faced up to 24 years in prison. "The jurors did not accept the prosecution's claim that Tafoya had been hired by Edwin Wilson, a former CIA agent now working for Gaddafi in Tripoli, to kill Zagallai because the Colorado State student had criticized the Libyan dictator. Still, they did seem to conclude that some unknown other conspirators had sent Tafoya to rough the student up. The fact that Zagallai ended up blinded in one eye, rather than dead, apparently impressed the jurors that Tafoya had not been bent on murder. They were also told by the defense that Tafoya fired his gun only after a struggle during which Zagallai reached for a weapon of his own."

The incredibly high-profile case drew reporters from around the world to Colorado, who chased after all the twists and turns involving the CIA, illegal arms sales and terrorism.

Mike Nichols had a front-row seat at the media circus. A Wellington resident who has since worked in everything from politics to bars, Nichols was in high school at the time of the Tafoya trial, planning to go to CSU and holding down a part-time job at the Townhouse Restaurant, which was connected to the Best Western hotel right across from CSU on College Avenue. "That is where anyone who came to town stayed," Nichols says. "I met the original members of Van Halen when they came to play on campus. So for this, all of the reporters from around the world descended onto campus, and they stayed at the hotel."

At the time, Nichols had journalistic aspirations, and he collected the autographs of some of the media stars. "Every other table had a reporter -- from the U.K., from Japan," he remembers. "You couldn't escape it. It was so strange. Fort Collins wasn't then what it is now. It was very isolated, so for us to get that kind of attention was really something."

Colorado is da bomb: Of course, Colorado has gotten plenty of attention for its terrorist connections since then -- whether for the trials of Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols or the supermax prison in Florence, which has been home to Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, as well as so-called 2011 "twentieth hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui and Mohamed Rashed al-Owhali, who helped carry out the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya, and many others.

More recently, Colorado served as the stamping grounds for Najibullah Zazi, an Aurora airport shuttle driver who pleaded guilty last year to conspiring to buy supplies that were going to be used to bomb the New York City subway system. And then there was "Jihad" Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, a 31-year-old Leadville woman who was arrested in Ireland in 2010 and charged with supplying "material support" to a group of terrorists who were planning to kill cartoonist Lars Vilks, who had drawn the prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog.

Maybe it's time for Colorado's own terrorism museum, the CELL, to set up a Colorado Terrorism Hall of Fame.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.