A bar owner in Spain who led authorities to a fugitive Montana Army National Guardsman searched the Internet for weeks before discovering that the man working in his bar was Jeffrey Lane Wenzel, wanted in Montana on felony sex charges and for fleeing to avoid prosecution.
The English owner of the bar in a beachside resort in Mallorca, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, said Wenzel, 38, approached him in July seeking work and claiming he had served in the U.S. Army Special Forces and fought in Afghanistan, Iraq and Serbia.
The bar owner, who spoke on the condition that his name and the name of his bar not be disclosed to protect his business and the privacy of his family, said he eventually hired Wenzel to cook American-style food in the family-friendly bar.
“I love American people,” he said.
But the stories told by the bald, goateed visitor kept changing and aroused the suspicions of the bar owner and his wife.
The bar owner searched the Internet for clues. Finally a comment apparently left by Wenzel’s wife on the Facebook page of the Whitefish Fire Department led him to discover Wenzel’s identity, he said, and to his arrest Sept. 9.
In Helena, Wenzel is facing felony sex charge against an underage girl, plus two charges of felony sexual abuse of a minor for allegedly enticing the girl to send him images by text messages. Prosecutors say he has admitted to some of the crimes to investigators and he faces local and federal charges related to his apparent flight from the area.
Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher said Tuesday he is working with the Montana Attorney General’s office and the U.S. Department of Justice to gain his extradition to the United States.
The bar owner said it was an enormous relief when he finally discovered the true identity of the man he was employing after three or four weeks of worry and sleepless nights. He said he was speaking out to help hold Wenzel accountable to the law and to his alleged child victim in Montana and to help bring peace to his own family.
He said the story is currently major news in Spain.
“It’s kind of a big thing for us to have a federal fugitive from America wanted in Mallorca,” he said.
In a pair of phone conversations with the Independent Record on Wednesday and several text messages, the bar owner related the story of the man he first knew simply as “Jeff” or “Dude,” who claimed he had recently returned from Afghanistan and was on a 12-month leave from the military. He approached the bar owner in July offering security services, but the owner said the place didn’t need such a thing.
Jeff returned about a week later and the bar owner agreed to let him work cooking American-style food — burgers and ribs, for example — and doing odd jobs and maintenance.
The owner said Jeff’s cooking wasn’t all that good and wasn’t a big hit with the customers, with dishes frequently being undercooked and sent back.
“He made a very good cole slaw,” he said.
Jeff didn’t even demand payment, saying he had money from his military service and just wanted to pass the time. The bar owner said he paid him occasionally and in small amounts.
One day, a government inspector came to the establishment, and Wenzel ran away. When he returned, he explained to his boss that he was actually absent without leave from the military, after trying to avoid being sent back to Afghanistan and having to kill more people. He told the bar owner he had flown from America to Germany and then traveled around Europe using a military passport, generally crossing borders on foot.
A call Wednesday to a Montana Army National Guard spokesman seeking confirmation on the claims of Wenzel’s military past was not returned. But a spokesman said Tuesday that Wenzel, who held the rank of sergeant first class, was no longer in the Guard after he went AWOL in January.
The bar owner agreed to let him stay, but wanted him to get the papers required for foreign workers in Spain, even those who volunteer their services. Jeff produced some papers, but the bar owner identified them as fakes. Still, he let Jeff work, he said.
The bar owner said he expects to be punished by Spanish authorities for that.
As time went on, more of Jeff’s stories didn’t add up.
He claimed he competed in mixed martial arts under the name Hotel Charlie, which he said was his code name in the military. But the bar owner, himself a former martial artist, found that Jeff didn’t seem to know much about it.
Jeff said his father in South Dakota was a technician who worked on televisions; another time, he said his father was a fire chief, the bar owner said.
Meanwhile the man started posting on the Facebook pages of numerous local bars in the area under the name Jeffrey John (J.J.) Montana. At one point the bar owner noticed J.J. Montana “liked” another Facebook page tagged with the name Jeffrey Wiegel, ostensibly a security concern, with the same man’s picture.
The bar owner confronted Jeff and asked him what his real name was and got the answer: Jeffrey Lane Wiegel.
In some ways, the bar owner said, Jeff seemed like a normal, nice, guy. He communicated with his wife in Kalispell via Skype every night, and they spoke of starting a new life in Spain. She was selling everything and was going to come over, he said.
According to a wedding announcement last July, Wenzel married Terri Shively of Kalispell. When Wenzel fled authorities in January, according to prosecutors, he left a note to his wife saying he was innocent of the charges against him but would not be able to get a fair trial.
“In her defense, I think she’s just totally in love with this guy and has no idea who this guy is,” the bar owner said.
Shively has no listed number in Kalispell, and her former Facebook page has been taken down. The Missoula lawyer who represented Wenzel in the criminal case before his flight did not return an email Wednesday seeking contact with Shively.
The bar owner said he has always wanted to come to America; Jeff told him of a bar in Whitefish that he might be able to purchase and said he could stay with his parents at their ranch.
But Jeff’s behavior didn’t sit right. For starters, the bar owner said, Jeff took to wearing the same style of sunglasses and watch as him.
“He kind of looked up to me,” he said. “It was all kind of weird.”
Some of the weird behavior was more distressing. Jeff told customers he had bought the bar and now owned it. And his description of where his wife worked in fire and rescue shifted.
The bar owner and his wife started wondering if Jeff was hiding from something more serious than being AWOL.
“He was changing his stories every day,” the bar owner said. “Every night I came home and I couldn’t sleep.”
He started scouring the Web for lists of wanted people, murderers and sex offenders. He found a registered sex offender who was nearly an exact lookalike of Jeff, and he and his wife called American authorities, only to find that the man they found online was, in fact, already incarcerated.
They looked for evidence of his wife and her whereabouts. Knowing only her first name, Terri, they searched for lists of female fire and rescue workers in the Kalispell area, looking for the nonexistent woman named Terri Wiegel.
Finally, a break came on the Facebook page of the Whitefish Fire Department. In one group picture, someone named Terri made a comment. The bar owner clicked on it and found Wenzel’s wife Facebook page, with photos and the real name of Jeffrey Lane Wenzel. A little further searching turned up stories of the charges he faces.
The bar owner tried to contact Wenzel’s wife through Facebook but received no reply, he said.
Sept. 7, a Saturday, he contacted the Lewis and Clark Sheriff’s Office to let them know he found someone wanted in the county. The sheriff’s office told him Wenzel was the subject of an FBI warrant and told him to contact the FBI in Madrid. Agents there told him to contact his local police, which then received the warrant from the FBI and arrested Wenzel at the bar Sept. 9 at about 4 p.m. local time.
Before the arrest, he confronted Wenzel, telling him he knew his identity and the charges he faced. He also told Wenzel just what he thought of him and the crime allegedly committed against a young girl, he said.
Wenzel initially cried, he said, but was calmed down by the time the police came and went into custody without a struggle.
He said he also felt horrible for bringing such a person close to his family and his patrons, which includes families with children. And he’s angry that his trust was violated,
“I felt kind of robbed of the friendship,” he said. “It was kind of heartbreaking for us to be involved in this.”
But he also feels glad the stress and fear is over, and satisfaction in having caught an international fugitive.
“It felt really good to find him when nobody could,” he said. “It’s surreal at the moment.”
Reporter Sanjay Talwani: email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @IR_SanjayT.