The search for Scott Speicher

Attorney Cindy Laquidara spent 15 years volunteering and spending her own money on investigators to help the pilot’s family find answers — and closure.

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  • | 7:00 a.m. December 4, 2017
  • The Bar Bulletin
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Cindy Laquidara
Cindy Laquidara

As Cindy Laquidara sees it, people should do what they can do to contribute to the greater good.

For a lawyer, that often means pro bono legal work. For Laquidara, her volunteer efforts have been centered on the military, most notably 15 years of working to help the family of Navy pilot Capt. Scott Speicher of Jacksonville find answers in his death.

Those answers didn’t come easily, or quickly, or in full. But they did provide some closure and some changes to ensure the military will better handle similar situations in the future.

Speicher’s remains were returned home 18 years after his plane was shot down over Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991, the first day of Operation Desert Storm.

Changes were made to how the U.S. military handles prisoners of war or missing in action personnel so they aren’t left behind, like many — including Laquidara — believe was Speicher’s case.

Over the years, reports of Speicher sightings and potential evidence that he may have survived the crash by ejecting led to his official status being changed several times. At one point, the husband and father of two was considered missing and captured.

Laquidara, a partner at Akerman, didn’t just volunteer her time. She covered all of her expenses, including hiring investigators overseas to help find information for 10 of the 15 years she was involved in the Speicher search.

She won’t say how much she spent on that effort, or for approximately 25 trips she made during that time. Laquidara said she believed they were close to finding Speicher a half-dozen times. Her dedication to the search led to her being named Lawyer of the Year by the Daily Record in 2010. 

Laquidara also volunteers in civil cases in the U.S. Middle District of Florida, where the plaintiffs — she typically chooses prisoners — don’t have attorneys. She has completed one case and has two others, which she’ll be working on with associates in the office. Laquidara, a former city general counsel, also is a member of the Business Executives for National Security, a high-level nonpartisan volunteer group that helps address challenges in the national security community. She believes she will be working in the intelligence area. 

There’s also a personal tie to the military for Laquidara. Her only child, Joey, is a Marine who returned home in September from a second overseas tour.

This is an edited version of an interview with Laquidara, who has been a member of The Jacksonville Bar Association since 1984.

Navy Capt. Scott Speicher of Jacksonville was killed when his plane was shot down over Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991, the first day of Operation Desert Storm.
Navy Capt. Scott Speicher of Jacksonville was killed when his plane was shot down over Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991, the first day of Operation Desert Storm.

How did you get involved with helping the Speicher family?

His widow called me after she was contacted by the Navy in 1994 and was told that they needed to come see her and she didn’t need a lawyer. She knew that meant she did need a lawyer.

This was in 1994 and Scott had died, we had thought at the time, in January 1991. I couldn’t find anybody to take the case with the knowledge in the area, so I said I would do it and learn the area. I was very fortunate to have people who helped.

Who were some of those people?

Evan Yegelwel (with Terrell Hogan) helped me find sources through DEBKA, which is an Israeli-based website that has intelligence and can lead you to contacts.

Then ultimately the Perot Group with Harry McKillop, who goes throughout the world and rescues Americans left behind on behalf of Ross Perot. They provided me some expert assistance with international relations. Other people  were helpful along the way, including Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts from Kansas and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson from Florida, a Democrat. The two of them gave personal chits, personal credits, to help get things done. It was amazing.

Politics is a zero-sum game, but not for those two when there was a military person at risk, when most other people frankly didn’t care.

Talk about hiring your own people overseas.

Well, it’s amazing what you can find with a little industriousness. There were people, after Saddam Hussein fell, in need of money and work, and with the skill set. 

I needed somebody on the ground to help and I couldn’t in good faith demand a seat at the table that might be better needed for the act of war.

Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton did an unbelievable job providing us with four people assigned to him to get through data. Because we had so much data, we needed to know what was no good, what intelligence was bad. He helped us clear out so much bad intelligence.

He really did so much for us in the middle of the war to get that done. They’re not all like that.

How did you find them?

I can’t really say. I can just say that it’s so easy to communicate with people throughout the world. People who were working with Saddam, doing things that may or may not have been good but who no longer had a job, had a skill set. They needed money to keep their families going.

For them, especially when you’ve worked for someone like Saddam, a regime where you have to be able to lie and mask and subjugate your feelings, we were on the side of the angels at this point. I just needed to find somebody who honestly wanted to be on the side of the angels.

How did you pay them?

With my own money. People spend money on vacations and cruises and going to the ballet. This was far more enriching for me. I got more than I gave, most definitely.

In all the years the search was going on for Capt. Speicher, how many times did you get close?

Many times. Half a dozen times. Each time, there was intelligence of where he was and we would get hopeful, but we were always realistic. Thanks to Buddy (Harris, a lawyer and a Speicher family friend) who is so talented. He just always kept a cool and balanced head on where we were going. He never gave up. 

Were there times that you all thought he was still alive?

I’m going to do the old, “We can’t confirm or deny whether he was alive.” That’s for the family.

What about what you thought?

Yes, absolutely.

Did you think that through the whole time or were there ups and downs for you personally?

I remember after I met with the (United Nations) Iraqi ambassador (Mohammed) Aldouri and we were debating U.N. resolutions. He said, “You know we’re at war. We have no electricity. We have no ability to communicate. You are pounding us. You Americans are all over us, all over our country. We’re missing thousands of people. … And you’re telling me you left a pilot here with a beautiful F/A-18 and you didn’t know that? You’re telling me that? I don’t believe you. I’ll never believe you.”

He was truthful at that time. He didn’t believe it. It’s like we think of our government, until we have to walk the halls of the Senate. And he’s like, “There’s no way you didn’t know. There’s no way. You left him behind intentionally.”

How did you respond to that?

I responded that I certainly wasn’t in charge. His family wasn’t in charge. He (Speicher) was a cog in the wheel and if somebody left him behind, it wasn’t with his consent and we needed to get him back.

We came close with the Kuwaitis, who had many missing people. We were working with them to get their prisoners and ours at the same time. At the last minute, that was kiboshed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

How long had you been working with the Kuwaitis to get to that point where you thought you were getting close?

At that point, that was about a year.

Do you know why Cheney stopped it?

Yeah, there are reasons. He didn’t have to explain them to me. His chief of staff was angry with me because I called her on it. What do I care? I’m not going up for Supreme Court justice.

When you found out Capt. Speicher had been found, what was that like? Was it a surprise or did you have a clue coming up to it that it was close?

Yeah, I did. You know because I still had my guy on the ground. It was odd. The manner in which it came about was odd. I think it was hard for the Navy to resolve it in that way.

What do you mean?

The chain of command is something that is hard to understand if you haven’t worked in it. Once the top of the chain says something is true, it’s true. People can’t function if they question that. The chain of command had said he (Speicher) was dead and they were never going to say otherwise.

Even though his status had been changed?

Even though his status had been changed by the president of the United States. So, there it is and it’s at rest for the family and that’s really the family’s privacy how we wrapped that up.

But I can tell you that the greatest comfort I took away was the family was able to resolve their matters and that the laws have been changed. First being that there has to be an actual search and someone couldn’t make this mistake again. And secondly, that they have the military and intelligence resources set and in place when we are in a hostile theater. And those two things, you’re like, “OK. Everything was not in vain for Scott.”

How often do you think about it?

They’re still in my prayers and I still stay friendly with them. Probably too much.

What do you mean?

Now that I have a son in the military, probably too much.

How did you feel when he told you he had enlisted?

I have to say that when he told me he was going in because we were at war, I asked him not to. I asked him to stay in school and he said, “Mom, all the kids in school, they’re just drinking and smoking.” I grabbed him by the shirt and I said, “Drink and smoke, honey. It’s not that bad.” He looked at me and he said, “Mom. It’ll be OK.”

He’s a very smart kid. The Marines are very well trained. That, and going to Mass daily, has me covered.

Is he overseas or is he back home?

He returned to the country in September and will be stateside for a number of months. When he was in Afghanistan, I did manage to over-mother him from here.

When he had a moment to Snapchat, which I’m the oldest living person Snapchatting, he was like, “Stop. We’re out of room,” because I kept sending boxes because I know not everybody has parents who can afford to send things. I managed to send him too much stuff and even his guys had no room in their footlockers.

You must be the only mother who’s been told, “Stop sending stuff. We’re good.”

He said, “Mom, I opened my millionth box of sunscreen and the sergeant said to me, ‘Did you tell your mommy you needed sunscreen?’” He said, “Sarge, I’m lucky she doesn’t parachute in and put it on me.”

I said, “I thought of that, honey, but you’re moving about so much, I wasn’t sure.”

Cindy Laquidara is a partner at Akerman, where she practices general commercial and civil litigation. When not working, the former general counsel for the City of Jacksonville helps care for her 95-year-old stepfather and enjoys hiking and reading.