The Army’s notorious ‘Soldier of Misfortune’ tried to defect to Cuba and North Vietnam

soldier who defected
Bobby Joe Keesee, at the time of his extradition. (Photo by U.S. Marshal’s Office)

Something was seriously wrong with Bobby Joe Keesee well before the soldier tried to defect to Cuba and North Vietnam. Although it might not have seemed like it when he enlisted, Keesee would go on to lead a life of crime – and not just petty crime. Keesee’s rap sheet includes desertion, treason, extortion, kidnapping and murder. It all happened in the span of Keesee’s less than 70 years on Earth.

When all was said and done, the disgraced former soldier would spend the rest of his life in prison, but would only spend less than 20 in various cells. He should have spent a whole lot more time there, as it might have prevented numerous tragedies from happening to otherwise innocent people.

Bobby Joe Keesee was a Texas native who dropped out of school in eighth grade, but somehow made his way in life. In 1951, at age 17, he joined the U.S. Army as a paratrooper and fought in the Korean War. He claimed to have been wounded while attempting to rescue allied prisoners from the communists, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart – though no records show he was wounded in combat. 

One might think he enjoyed Army life, because after the war ended, he stayed with the Army and did tours in West Germany, Iceland, and Japan. But something turned in 1962. He suddenly went AWOL from his base in Arizona, hijacked a light aircraft and flew it to Havana, Cuba, where he tried to defect. Fidel Castro refused and sent him back to the U.S. 

When Keesee returned, he claimed to be working for the CIA, but the agency denied it, and he ended up spending two years in prison. It turned out the stolen airplane was just the end of a 49-day crime spree. It turned out Keesee had stolen a car and driven it across 25,000 miles in 13 states, funded by writing bad checks. He had 152 charges stacked against him. Two years and a 2,500 fine was a light punishment. The stolen plane added another three years in prison.

bobby joe keessee soldier who defected
Bobby Joe Keesee.

When Keesee surfaced next, it was on a list of American prisoners of war being repatriated from North Vietnam  in 1973. He stood out on the list because he wasn’t deployed to Vietnam. He wasn’t even in the Army by then. After digging through a ton of records, the U.S. government discovered he had flown to Thailand in 1970 and hijacked a Thai plane in an attempt to defect to North Vietnam – in the middle of the Vietnam War. 

Instead, he was captured, tortured, and imprisoned with the rest of the captured Americans in North Vietnam. Keesee was repatriated to the U.S. in 1973. The next year, he was spotted leaving the U.S. consulate in Hermosillo, Mexico with Vice Consul John Patterson. When Patterson was reported kidnapped, the FBI traced the ransom note to Keesee. But Keesee never showed to pick up the ransom

Patterson was found dead in the desert near Hermosillo days later. When the FBI caught up to Keesee in Huntington Beach, California, they found evidence pointing to his involvement. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit kidnapping and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Keesee wasn’t done, however. 

After being paroled in 1986, he committed mail fraud. He was convicted and sent to jail until 1992, when he got out only to pose as a FEMA official to illegally acquire goods for resale. He was caught in Mexico, posing as a CIA operative. From there he hijacked a plane and wound up in Germany, where he was caught and extradited to the U.S. After more prison time, he was released again.

In 1999, he answered an ad to buy a plane from powerboating champion Harry Christensen. Instead of buying the plane, he killed Christensen, robbed him, and dumped the body in a New Mexico desert. He was caught with Christensen’s possessions. To avoid a death sentence, he pled guilty to the charges stacked against him and was sentenced to two life terms. He died in prison in 2010.