John Loftus was a young federal prosecutor researching cases in an underground vault in Maryland when he stumbled across classified documents that were not supposed to be opened until 2015.
He thumbed through file after file that he thought proved U.S. and British intelligence agencies knew about the Holocaust when it was still in its early stages. Other documents verified that the U.S. State Department had helped the British hide former Nazi officers in America.
The discovery changed what Loftus called his "Eagle Scout view of an America that could do no wrong." He had seen some of the "dark secrets." He would never be the same.
"That's when I began to realize that one-third of modern history was classified," he said. "And that I wanted to work to uncover the truths."
Twenty-five years later, the St. Petersburg resident remains just as driven, forsaking the riches of a traditional private law practice to follow the money trail left by groups who "would do evil to America and its allies."
His quest recently led him to suspended University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, who has been linked to Middle Eastern terrorists. Loftus filed a lawsuit Wednesday under the Florida Consumer Protection Act that claims Al-Arian used state-regulated organizations to solicit and launder money that he funneled to terrorist groups in Syria.
Al-Arian, who has never been charged with a crime, denies the allegations and said he never laundered money.
Since the suit was filed, the New York Times and Washington Post have called Loftus. He appeared Thursday night on Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor. But this isn't the first time the portly man with the Boston accent and graying hair has made a media splash.
In 1979, Loftus was an up-and-coming prosecutor with the U.S. Justice Department when he took a position with the Office of Special Investigations, an agency created to find and deport war criminals. He said he took the job because he thought it would be good for his career, and because he might get a free trip to Germany.
When he discovered the classified documents, he wanted to pursue the information. He said his superiors told him to stay out of the vaults and forget about it.
Loftus resigned instead.
In 1982, he appeared with reporter Mike Wallace on CBS' 60 Minutes in a half-hour segment about the recruitment of former Nazis by Western intelligence agencies.
"Congress opened investigative hearings. Mike Wallace won an Emmy award. My family got death threats," he said. "It was quite a deal."
Soon after, his first book on the topic, The Belarus Secret, was published. The book was made into a television movie with Telly Savalas.
"At first I'm often called a lunatic and then five or 10 years later people come to realize that I was right," Loftus said. "Maybe I'm just a thick-headed Irishman."
Loftus, who serves as the volunteer president of the Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, was born Feb. 12, 1950, to Irish Catholic parents in Boston. He studied Greek, Latin and German at the Boston Latin School and then graduated from Boston College in 1971. He entered the Army, working as a paratrooper and training other officers, he said.
His training duties forced him into the Yom Kippur War in 1973, he said. In the days before the war, the U.S. government knew about Arab plans to attack the Jewish state but failed to inform the Israelis, Loftus said. For political reasons, he said, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wanted to withhold supplies from Israel.
But Loftus said then-Chief of Staff Alexander Haig worked behind the scenes to make sure the Israelis were prepared. On Haig's orders, Loftus said, he gave 40 Israeli officers a crash course in how to use the newly introduced TOW missile system. Just a few days later, the Israelis used the system to devastate an Egyptian tank advance.
"That was the day Alexander Haig and I helped them win the war," Loftus said with a laugh.
Loftus left the Army in 1974 as a first lieutenant and went to Suffolk Law School. After resigning from the Office of Special Investigations, he went to work for a large Boston law firm. But after writing The Belarus Secret, he quit to work full time on interviewing intelligence agents who wanted the public to know about important classified material.
For the past 20 years, he has helped hundreds of intelligence agents do just that. He has written three more books, including The Secret War Against the Jews: How Western Espionage Betrayed the Jewish People and Unholy Trinity, about the Vatican's assistance in relocating Nazis throughout the world.
As he did with his 23-page lawsuit against Al-Arian, Loftus had agencies like the Department of Justice and the CIA review his book manuscripts before they were published. He calls it a "gentlemen's agreement" that allows him to interview almost anyone he wants as long as the agencies get a chance to censor particularly sensitive material.
The agreement has earned him a lot of trust, he said.
"I usually find a legal way to get the information into the books or it winds up in a later book when the information isn't as sensitive," he said.
At times, it has been a meager living. The phone bill hasn't always been paid on time, he said. His wife works full time despite some health problems. For security reasons, Loftus does not like to talk about his wife and daughter.
"It hasn't always been easy doing this job," he said.
Loftus, who recently overcame colon cancer, is writing a book called Prophets of Terror about Americans who warned about Arab militancy.
He said the Showtime network has plans to make a pilot show about his life starring Jon Voight and Aidan Quinn that could be turned into an ongoing series.
"It might sound funny, but my goal is to end racism in our childrens' lifetime," he said. "I feel this work can help achieve that goal."
_ Information from the Associated Press, Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times was used in this report. Contact Graham Brink at (813) 226-3365 or brinksptimes.com.