Olympic medalist and spy suspect Sam Hall dies at 77

He was imprisoned in Nicaragua in the 1980s, claiming to be part of an antiterrorist force.
A former Ohio legislator, Sam Hall was also an animal rescuer and mountain climber. 
A former Ohio legislator, Sam Hall was also an animal rescuer and mountain climber. 
Published September 4 2014
Updated September 5 2014

LARGO — On Dec. 12, 1986, as the Iran-Contra scandal was dominating the news, Nicaraguan authorities captured Sam Hall near a military airfield north of Managua.

They didn't believe Mr. Hall was there as a writer, as he had told them, or that the map in his sock was an arch support.

Eventually, he acknowledged that he was conducting surveillance for something called the Phoenix Battalion, a privately funded antiterrorist force of which he was the only remaining member.

He spent 49 days in a Sandinista communist prison, during which he survived a tough interview by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes.

A radio station in his native Dayton, Ohio, broadcast a special called, "Who is Sam Hall?" Until then, Mr. Hall had been a hometown hero — an Olympic silver medalist and former state legislator.

In Counter Terrorist, his first autobiography, Mr. Hall described the capture as the last of a series of paramilitary operations in places such as Lebanon, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

His exploits allegedly included killing Arab terrorists alongside Israeli commandos, parachuting into Angola to rescue some captured Canadians and training South American Indians in guerilla warfare.

But because Mr. Hall supplied few names or specifics — he couldn't, he said — some were skeptical.

"I do not consider Sam Hall a wacko, although he may be a little flaky," Capt. William Hamilton, a former chief of the Navy's counterterrorism program, told the Chicago Tribune in 1987. The CIA and Department of Defense disavowed any connection with the Phoenix Battalion.

Of course they did, Mr. Hall said.

"If I was killed in a foreign country, things that I have done the government would disavow," he said in a 1986 radio interview. "They would say I was killed in an automobile accident in Biloxi, Miss. You have to understand, there cannot be political embarrassment."

His brother, U.S. Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, helped secure his release from prison. Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega's assessment of Mr. Hall as "mentally unstable" didn't hurt, either.

Nonetheless, his passport bore entrance visas to Israel, South Africa and El Salvador, countries in which he said he had conducted missions.

Mr. Hall followed the paramilitary chapter of his life with a mile-high stack of civilian adventures, all of these eminently verifiable. He saved cattle stranded by snowstorms and baby harp seals that were being slaughtered near the North Pole. He fought at least 14 forest fires. He threw himself into disaster relief for all hurricanes, plucked survivors out of earthquakes and the rubble of the World Trade Center after Sept. 11, 2001.

"Whenever there was a flash flood or a tsunami, my next question was, 'When is your plane leaving?' " said Melinda Hall, 67, his wife and partner in a multimillion-dollar development company they ran together in the Clearwater area.

Mr. Hall had lived in Pinellas County since the mid 1980s. While the Nicaraguan episode was playing out on national news, he lived in Tierra Verde with Jimmie Bonbright, a longtime friend who knew him in Dayton.

Around the same time he met and married Melinda Castlen. Mr. Hall had been married before and had children, but this marriage lasted. The two formed several corporations to build high-rise condominiums in the Largo and Seminole area, including Shipwatch Yacht and Tennis Club and Country Club Condominiums.

In his spare time, he climbed the Grand Tetons, Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro. In 2006, at nearly 70 years old, he took a stab at Everest, making it through 11 days and 20,000 feet.

Sam Nesley Hall was born in Dayton in 1937. His father, Dave Hall, would later serve as the mayor of Dayton. He attended Ohio State University, where he racked up nine first-place diving trophies in three conferences, including the NCAA.

At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Mr. Hall won the silver medal on the 3-meter springboard. Ever after, he always teared up at the national anthem when Americans won gold.

He thought he would make a career of the Air Force and might have, had he not been incapacitated by a leg injury during a pole vaulting competition. He became addicted to painkillers and recovered.

He served as a Democratic Ohio state legislator in 1964 and 1965 (he later changed his party to Republican), but found politics "too phony."

The 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich shocked Mr. Hall and led him to his counterterrorism activities, said his old friend Bonbright, 78.

"Something kind of snapped in him," Bonbright said. "He wanted to do something about it."

In recent years, Mr. Hall competed in senior swimming competitions, even after he lost a leg to a vascular illness.

He died Aug. 11, of circulatory problems. He was 77. He was given a military funeral last Friday at Bay Pines National Cemetery.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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