WASHINGTON (CN) — Thirteen years to date since the longest-held captive in U.S. history, Bob Levinson, disappeared, a federal judge on Monday ruled the former FBI agent’s family is entitled to damages in a lawsuit seeking $1.5 billion from Iran.
In the years since Levinson vanished on March 9, 2007, while on a rogue mission for the CIA, he has missed the weddings of three adult children and the birth of eight grandchildren. Last year, the Levinson family appeared in U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly’s courtroom in Washington, D.C., for an evidentiary hearing where they shared tormented accounts of the pain suffered since their father’s disappearance.
“He has been unable to see his children grow up, enjoy professional success, marry, and become parents themselves — as they have many times over. But they have not forgotten him, not by a long shot,” Kelly wrote in his 25-page opinion granting default judgment against Iran.
Sarah Moriarty, Levinson’s daughter, said in an interview after the hearing that her family filed their 2017 lawsuit seeking $150 million in compensatory damages and $1.35 billion in punitive damages to send a message to the Iranian government.
“It’s not about the money for us,” Moriarty said. “It’s about doing everything that we can possibly do to bring my dad home to us.”
Iran has long denied holding Levinson. But the FBI confirmed publicly last year that “the only credible evidence of responsibility in Mr. Levinson’s abduction has pointed to those working for the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Judge Kelly reached the same conclusion Monday, calling Levinson’s detention “barbarous” and “dastardly.”
Iran will not immediately cut a check to the Levinsons in response to the Washington judge’s ruling. The money will be doled out to the family year by year based on assets available from a federal fund designated for victims of state-sponsored terrorism.
Attorney David McGee, representing the family since the day Levinson disappeared, said it has been a constant struggle over the last 13 years to keep the public from moving on.
“The American press has a short memory, and the American politicians have short memories,” McGee said in an interview Monday. “We have to periodically remind them that there is an American still imprisoned in Iran, and they need to get him the hell out of there.”
The Levinsons said in a statement Monday the nightmare that began 13 years ago continues for their family.
“On this anniversary, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia has found that the Iranian regime is responsible for what happened to him. This case was extremely emotional for everyone involved, including the court, and we wish to acknowledge all those who worked on it,” they said. “We will continue to do everything in our power to seek justice for our husband and father.”
One by one the Levinsons had testified in the emotional two-day hearing in December, broken down and sobbing in the witness box as they recounted the mental and physical disorders that have plagued them the last 13 years.
“My stomach was sick for days leading up to it because I just didn’t want to even think about what we were going to face. And it was just as horrific to listen to it as we expected it to be,” Moriarty told Courthouse News.
The large family filled the front rows of Kelly’s courtroom. Grandchildren watched on, at times escorted out into the hallway to be distracted from the weight of the proceeding by toys and games.
But Levinson’s wife, Christine, stoically testified, her back straight and head steady, explaining to the judge who expressed astonishment at her strength that if she cried in front of her children “the dominos would fall and they would not be able to be picked up.”
An advocate for her husband’s freedom, the matriarch has visited Iran, met with top United Nations officials and continues to lobby the U.S. government to bring her husband home.
Monday’s ruling reads as standard in one of dozens of such cases in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking damages from Iran. The judge outlined in detail each event since Levinson stopped at Kish, an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf, investigating Iranian officials said to be skimming oil profits and depositing the money overseas.
But just before receding into chambers on a brief recess during the December hearing, Kelly, an appointee of President Donald Trump, made an unconventional show of emotion from the bench.
“I have learned a lot of things the last two days,” the judge told the Levinson family. “One thing I have learned is that I’m a terrible father.”
A self-described hard-line federal prosecutor, McGee said that, while he tried murder cases without blinking an eye, the Levinson case is painful.
“If he had died, and I hate to say this, but if he had died 13 years ago, that wound would be healed by now,” the attorney told Courthouse News in December. “It would be a sad memory but it would have healed. This one doesn’t heal. Because he is there today, and he’ll be there tomorrow.”
Paired with the Levinsons’ wrenching testimony, the judge also found credible expert witnesses who concluded that videos and photographs that surfaced in 2010 and 2011 of Levinson pleading for help — the American hostage questioning if “33 years of service to the United States deserves something”— would more likely have documented an execution if produced by a non-state terrorist organization.
“The video has the hallmarks of a ‘more sophisticated’ actor — such as a state sponsor of terrorism — looking to increase its leverage in a deal to recover Levinson,” Kelly wrote.
In a prisoner swap just two days after the Levinsons testified, Iran freed a Princeton University graduate student held captive on espionage charges for more than three years.
Each time an American held captive in Iran returns home, the Levinsons reach out to gather any new information that could aid them in the seemingly never-ending battle for answers.
“We have been through so many people and my dad is always the one left behind,” Moriarty said.
Judge Kelly noted in his opinion that “now no one knows Levinson’s fate.” Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Patrick Clawson, in an interview after testifying as an expert witness on the case last year, said Trump may be able to cut a deal for Levinson’s release because the administration is “vigorously prosecuting” Iranians for sanctions-busting.
“It’s much more that kind of quid pro quo kind of leverage … than grand political thinking,” Clawson explained, while adding: “The U.S. government has not covered itself in glory about this matter.”
Moriarty said the Trump administration has actively worked to secure her father’s release; there is a $25 million State Department reward for information on top of the longstanding $5 million FBI reward. She believes many people in the highest levels of the U.S. government, including national security adviser Robert O’Brien and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are personally committed to bringing her father home.
Judge Kelly recognized the evident bond Levinson built with each of his children, noting that from abroad the special agent had emailed his daughter wishing her luck in the student government elections.
Introduced as evidence in court were emails Levinson had addressed to his seven children with pet names like “Happy Face” and “Lumpy” that revealed a loving and attentive father.
“hello GURLIE. calling all tortoises! please support Shamanda Turtle in her quest to be vice president of Turtletandia! love Shamanda’s Daddy,” Levinson wrote to his youngest daughter Samantha, who replied with the same playfulness: “i appreciate your support in these important matters and wish you continued success on your weisel deal endeavors. A real tortoise never leaves her fathers emails unresponded. love, daddy’s shaimanda.”
Moriarty, Levinson’s daughter, said that from the moment her sister Samantha took the stand she was crying, telling the judge she “hit the dad jackpot.”
“You could hear his voice almost come back to us in that courtroom, and it was bizarre to be laughing and crying at these beautiful email exchanges between my dad and each of us,” Moriarty said, explaining that it was heartbreaking “to feel like I was so close to him and then remember that he’s still so far away.”