Nate Thayer, Bold Reporter Who Interviewed Pol Pot, Dies at 62

Nate Thayer, a risk-taking, sometimes theatrical journalist whose career was capped by an exclusive jungle interview in Cambodia with Pol Pot, the leader of one of the worst convulsions of mass killing of the last century, has died at his home in East Falmouth, Mass. He was 62.

His body was found on Tuesday, but it was not clear precisely when he had died, his brother, Robert Thayer, said. He said his brother had long struggled with multiple ailments.

Mr. Thayer interviewed Pol Pot in October 1997 after months of clandestine meetings with Khmer Rouge guerrillas, whom Pol Pot led. After crossing the border from Thailand, Mr. Thayer sat with him in a forest clearing, facing a broken man whose followers had turned against him as his movement collapsed into opposing factions.

During Pol Pot’s four years in power, in the late 1970s, two million people — as much as one-fourth Cambodia’s population — died of execution, torture, starvation or overwork as he attempted by force to create a pure, pre-modern Communist state.

In the interview he offered a bland defense of the carnage.

“I came to carry out the struggle, not to kill people,” he told Mr. Thayer, who quoted him for an article published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, an Asian newsmagazine.

“Even now, and you can look at me, am I a savage person?” he asked in the interview, which was videotaped by Mr. Thayer’s associates David McKaige and Marc Laban. “My conscience is clear.”

He added: “I only made decisions concerning the very important people. I didn’t supervise the lower ranks.”

Mr. Thayer had competition for the interview from Elizabeth Becker of The New York Times, but when she arrived at the border, he used his connections to block her entry and maintain his exclusive. She had conducted the last American interview with Pol Pot 18 years earlier, for The Washington Post, and had narrowly survived an attack by unidentified gunmen.

Mr. Thayer’s interview was his second clandestine trip across the border. Earlier that year, his Khmer Rouge contacts had taken him to witness an outdoor show trial in which Pol Pot, the movement’s founder, was denounced by comrades.

“‘Crush! Crush! Crush Pol Pot and his clique!’ shouted the crowd,” Mr. Thayer reported. “There, slumped in a simple wooden chair, grasping a long bamboo cane and a rattan fan, an anguished old man, frail and struggling to maintain his dignity, was watching his vision crumble in utter defeat.”

Just under six months later, in April 1998, an ailing Pol Pot died in his sleep at 73.

The jungle meeting produced a minor drama of its own when Mr. Thayer gave Ted Koppel of the ABC News program “Nightline” the American broadcast rights to his video.

The network immediately distributed both still pictures and the video around the world with credit to ABC, which Mr. Thayer said violated their agreement and scooped his own article. ABC News said it had followed standard practice, paying him for the material, giving him credit but presenting it as its own.

He declined to share a Peabody award with the network and brought suit, winning an out-of-court settlement after years of litigation.

He also won a cluster of awards for his investigative reporting.

Mr. Thayer spent many months writing a book about the Khmer Rouge titled “Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir From Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge,” which offered vivid descriptions of the trial and interview. The book was advertised online, but for unclear reasons it was never published, and Mr. Thayer carried the manuscript with him for years afterward.

People who knew him described him as a courageous reporter who was determined to dig for truth while cultivating a rugged, Heart-of-Darkness image and sometimes exaggerating his exploits.

Writing on his Facebook page on Wednesday, Robert Brown, the founder and publisher of Soldier of Fortune magazine, said: “Goodbye to one of the most colorful, gutsy, by some standards certifiable mad genius journalists I have ever encountered.”

Calling him “a loner who hated being alone,” Michael Hayes, founder and former publisher of the newspaper The Phnom Penh Post, said in an email:

“He was fearless, infuriatingly stubborn, uncompromising in his commitment to a free press, extremely generous to those people he loved, unbelievably disorganized in terms of managing even the simplest paperwork, and constantly wrestling unsuccessfully with a whole host of inner demons.”

A photo by Mr. Thayer of a Khmer Rouge guerrilla with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher strapped to his back in Banteay Meanchey Province, Cambodia, in 1990.Credit…Nate Thayer/Associated Press

Nathaniel Talbott Thayer was born April 21, 1960, in Washington, the son of Harry E.T. Thayer, a career diplomat who served as ambassador to Singapore from 1980 to 1984, and Joan Pirie Leclerc. In addition to his brother, he is survived by his mother and his sisters, Marian Vito and Margaret P. Thayer.

Nate attended and was expelled from several private schools, Robert Thayer said, then attended the University of Massachusetts in Boston but did not graduate.

“I was a problem child,” Mr. Thayer wrote in a Facebook post in August, “And honestly I have always been a problem adult. I don’t do well with rules.” He added: “Whenever someone tells me what to do, I do the opposite. Even when they are entirely right.”

He headed to Southeast Asia inn 1984, working for Soldier of Fortune before joining The Associated Press in Bangkok. There he focused on the continuing civil war in Cambodia in which Pol Pot’s guerrillas were fighting the Vietnamese-backed government that had driven the Khmer Rouge from power.

Mr. Thayer moved to Cambodia in 1979 and joined the Far Eastern Economic Review (it ceased publication in 2009), for which he continued to cover the war and challenge the government with exposés of corruption.

One story he often recounted involved a foray into a conflict zone in Cambodia during which the truck he was riding in struck an anti-tank mine. He was wounded but survived because he was sitting in front on the gearbox, he said, while the soldiers on either side of him were killed.

In 1999, Mr. Thayer and the photographer Nic Dunlop were the first journalists to interview the fugitive Khmer Rouge prison commandant Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, a scoop that led to Duch’s arrest and trial.

After Cambodia, still adventurous, Mr. Thayer traveled to several conflict zones, including Iraq, where he covered the American invasion in 2003.

Slowing down in recent years, Mr. Thayer turned to reporting online, writing analyses of American white supremacy movements and North Korean affairs. He subsisted in large part on the generosity of others, friends said. In his final decade, they said, he fell into alcohol and drug abuse and his health declined.

In recent months he recounted his deterioration in rambling postings on Facebook.

“I’m old and crippled now,” he wrote in August. “Two strokes, two heart attacks, two bouts with Covid, sepsis infections which went viral and left me with heart and other damage.”

He declined doctors’ recommendations for treatment. Nearly 200 donors gave a total of $34,230 to a GoFundMe campaign late last year to support him.

During this time his companion, and subject of many Facebook posts, was his dog, Lamont, a black half Labrador, half Corgi, whom he called his best friend.

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