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Monday, December 5, 2022

Don John: The Man, the Myth, the Legend

“Don John” is up to his old tricks.

It could also be said, and it would be true, he’s never stopped doing what he does. We — editors of this magazine and most people in Evansville — just didn’t know.

For nearly 20 years, the name John Hull hasn’t been heard much around Evansville. But for the decade of the 1980s and into the 1990s, “Don John,” as the Gibson County farmer was called throughout Central America, dominated local news reporting and captured the interest of national news organizations, politicians, presidents, the native Indians of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the FBI, and the CIA.

The man who for a decade regaled reporters and anyone who would listen about his wartime adventures was keeping a low profile.

Pam Martin, an executive at Growth Alliance for Greater Evansville, who in 1989 interviewed and reported on Hull for the Sunday Courier & Press, even speculated recently as she drove up U.S. Highway 41 past the Patoka exit (where the Hull family farm sits less than a quarter-mile off the highway) if Hull still was alive.

John Floyd Hull Jr., 88, is indeed alive and talking at his 1,200-acre ranch in a remote area of the Mexican state of Yucatan, in the municipality of Tizimin, where he and his wife of 20 years, Emelia, 42, raise 800 Brahman cattle and have demonstrated a commitment to improving the lives of the native Mayan people who inhabit that region.

Two Evansville residents, John Whinrey, an attorney at Frick Powell LLP, and Ron Huffman, a retired Whirlpool engineer, both members of the Rotary Club of Evansville, recently traveled to the Yucatan to visit with Hull and Emelia (“Emie”).

Soon after their visit, I received a phone call in my office on a Friday afternoon. The strong, clear, congenial voice on the phone said, “Mrs. Tucker, this is John Hull. I want to invite you down to my ranch in Mexico.”

John Hull is up to his old tricks. Those who know him — including his grandson Joe Bammer, who owns and operates GrassMasters Sod Farm on part of the Hull family property in Patoka — say that Hull is doing the same thing in Mexico that he began doing in Costa Rica 40 years ago: carving a ranch out of the jungle and working intently to improve the natives’ lives, chiefly through better medical care.

Martin is not surprised. “It sounds just like John Hull. He’ll have one cause after another — humanitarian. Whether it’s on the political fringes or by himself, he’s going to try to improve lives. It’s his brand of assistance. He’ll always be doing what helps people.”

I took Hull’s invitation to visit his ranch seriously and in early January extended a business trip to San Antonio, Texas, to fly to Cancun, Mexico, where Hull said he and Emie would pick me up. Because the Hulls were in El Salvador when they phoned, I had not been able to reach them again until I was in the airport.

“We’re so pleased you’re coming,” Hull said. “We’ll try not to get you kidnapped.”

A few days later I was greeted by Emie Hull in Cancun. Because my flight was a few hours late and people picking up arriving passengers must wait outside, Hull was resting in the leather-seated Chrysler van. I spotted Emie, a pretty Costa Rican woman with strong features and a bright smile, and we began the 100-mile drive through Cancun and into the interior to the Hull ranch. While the roads in this ancient area of Mexico have been improved in recent years, due largely to the tourism industry centering around Cancun and the ruins of Chichen Itza and Tulum, still the drive takes nearly three hours, giving us plenty of time to get acquainted as we stopped several times to see the beach, to eat, and to buy fruit, Mexican pastries, and tortillas.

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Early Adventures

John Floyd Hull Jr. learned about adventure early in his life. He was born Oct. 20, 1920, in Princeton, Ind., the second of two sons. Both parents had college degrees; his mother taught school, and his father was a county agricultural extension agent.

Hull’s father was outspoken against the Ku Klux Klan and, as a result, had a hard time finding a job in Southern Indiana. But he was able to find a job in Dubois County, where John Jr. started school at age 4.

When Hull’s father landed a job as the Vanderburgh County extension agent, the family moved to 715 Washington Ave., and Hull attended Stanley Hall and Bosse High School before enrolling in Evansville College at the age of 17. Always popular, he told me he beat out Vance Hartke, who would later become a U.S. senator, for senior class president.

Hull studied at Evansville College before enrolling in the federal government’s civil pilot training program. He took pilot courses in Evansville and Indianapolis and was selected to take instructor and acrobatic courses.

In 1940, he joined his older brother, J.D., in California where he trained pilots for the U.S. Army Air Corps, the forerunner of the Air Force. There, Hull taught flying for a year before he was drafted by the Army for occupational duty in Germany. Demonstrating the willfulness and resourcefulness that define him, he persuaded the Army to release him and went to Canada to join the Royal Air Force. Hull says he wanted to fly planes instead of being stationed in Germany. Soon he was flying B-24 bombers from Canada to India. He claims to have held the Guinness World Record for the fastest halfway-around-the-world flight in 1941.

At the expansive Yucatan ranch home he and Emie built six years ago, Hull displays on the walls framed photographs of the pilots he taught in California, a handsome photo of himself flying a B-24, and a framed newspaper clipping from the Evansville Courier Journal, dated Jan. 26, 1936, that featured his mother, Anna Clark Hull. In the story, on the occasion of the death of King George V of England, Hull’s mother recalled 25 years earlier when she was presented at the court of the king and Queen Mary.

Also on the wall of the ranch home is a widescreen high-definition television. A satellite dish, borrowed from their Gibson County property, receives programs broadcast from the U.S. While Emie manages the daily operations of the ranch and its employees — including cowboys, Portofirio and Ruben, and maid, Helda — Hull takes care of business from his recliner and watches Fox News. While his wit is wry and he is quick with a quip, Hull has Parkinson’s disease and a history of heart disease and isn’t as active as he was even at age 70, when, I learned that first night sitting at their dining room table, Hull and Emie fled Nicaragua (prompted by numerous threats on Hull’s life) on foot, climbing over a 4,000-foot mountain in the middle of the night.

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Farming Paradise

About 1949, Hull’s father had left his job in Vanderburgh County to work for the Ford Foundation as a foreign agricultural specialist, which led the Hull family to consider making farming investments in other countries. Hull had become interested in the tropics earlier in the war when he flew bombers from Canada to Central America.

During the 1950s, Hull and his father flew to Central America in their own airplane with soil testing kits to test throughout Central America and into South America. They looked for a location with fertile, mineralized soil; a friendly, pro-American culture; and a stable government. They found that in Costa Rica.

In 1969, Hull was the first American rancher to take up residence in northern Costa Rica. At the peak of his farming operations there, Hull amassed a total of about 12,000 acres under management, nearly all of it in ranches bordering the San Juan River along the Nicaraguan border. Over the years, Hull, and other Americans he persuaded to follow him to Costa Rica (like wealthy Henderson, Ky., farmer and former Army officer, the late George P. Whittington), tamed Costa Rica’s wild frontier, dotting it with cattle, lumber, and citrus industries. Hull became a Costa Rican citizen (today, he holds dual citizenship with the U.S.) and earned the titles of respect: “Don John” or “El Patron” among the locals.

In the Yucatan, Hull still is called “Don John.” At a recent party Emie hosted at the ranch for the schoolchildren of the tiny neighboring village of San Pilar, a little girl asked if she could kiss “Don John.”

“I’ve not had a woman ask to kiss me in 50 years,” Hull joked.

I had read newspaper accounts from the early 1980s suggesting Hull was the most powerful man in Costa Rica. “Was he?” I asked Emie.

“He was. He was a fantastic asset for North America,” Emie says. “John first got very well known for flying in medical supplies.”

Just as his father had an airstrip on their Gibson County property (Evansville residents may remember the sign, “Hull Airport,” along U.S. Highway 41), Hull established grass runways on many of his Costa Rican farms. When neighboring Nicaragua tipped into a full-scale civil war in 1978, Hull began assisting Costa Rican officials by flying in medical supplies and flying out the wounded.

“I’ve grown very fond of the Indians, in Costa Rica and Nicaragua and now here,” Hull says.

Warring in Nicaragua were the Sandinistas and the Contras. The Sandinistas had taken over a repressive regime in 1979, and within a few months, had made known their ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union and vowed to spread communism across Central America. The Contras were formed from dozens of anti-Sandinista battle groups that staged assaults on the new Nicaraguan government from enclaves deep in the eastern Nicaraguan jungle and from neighboring Honduras and Costa Rica, the area of Hull’s ranches.

“The Costa Rican (National) guard were as much against the communists as anyone; so were the El Salvadorans and the Hondurans,” says Hull. “Luckily, there was an awful lot of help from everywhere, especially over in our area — rural people are anti-communist. Your communist agitation comes from people in the big cities, and out there in the North where I was, and the valley rural area, the people donated rice to me and food that I could give to the Contras. The police offered to close any roads I wanted, where they were going to air drop that night. When everyone cooperated, we felt we were stopping the communist movement.”

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Patriot, Romantic, Idealist

What Hull describes are the activities that garnered him national and international attention in the mid-1980s, landed him in a Costa Rican prison in 1989, caused him to be targeted by a high-profile lawsuit, and investigated by U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for alleged involvement in what became known as the Iran-Contra affair.

While Hull had helped by flying in medical supplies for several years, his involvement in the Nicaraguans’ civil war escalated when the Sandinistas came to him. “They wanted to use my farms as their jump off base against Nicaragua,” Hull says. “I told them to go to hell. I’d heard their story and their leftist propaganda, and I wouldn’t let them come on any of my farms, which put me on their hate list. And they began burning my buildings and killing my cattle.”

Not long after, the Contras approached Hull for aid. “When this guy (Eden) Pastora came along with two or three of his lieutenants (see “Cast of Characters” sidebar) and said they were getting ready to open up the Northern front against the communists,” Hull says, “why, it was pretty natural that I was happy about it and agreed to help.” Because the Contras were backed by the U.S., Hull believes the request to aid the Contras came through the CIA, and thus began his reputation as a CIA operative.

This reputation was reinforced by the congressional testimony of a National Security Council aide to Lt. Col. Oliver North –– widely reported in the press –– that Hull had received $10,000 a month through American-supported Contra groups to finance his activities.  Today Hull admits to being paid $10,000 a month, but the payments lasted only a few months, and he says he spent more than that on fuel, food, medical employees, and wages for the aid.

“I had all the receipts,” Hull says. “And when they brought that up to Washington, this interrogation head, I said, ‘Well, I got $10,000 and I spent $11,000.’ But no one ever mentions that. Except me, I mention that.”

The CIA couldn’t have picked a better guy. Andrew Smith, an Evansville entrepreneur who grew up knowing Hull, describes him: “He’s a cowboy, a romantic, a patriot, an adventurer. He was on the front line against communism — as close as we’ve ever seen to a fight about good versus evil. The shades of gray were not there, so it was a perfect backdrop for these guys — Hull, Whittington, my dad. And they all did it wholeheartedly without regret.”

Smith’s father, Edwin Smith, was a country lawyer from Sebree, Ky., who successfully defended Hull in the Christic Institute lawsuit filed on behalf of journalists Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey, who were present at the 1984 La Penca bombing that allegedly targeted Pastora, a former Sandinista turned Contra leader.  The suit accused Hull, along with 28 others (names that would surface in the Iran-Contra story), of being involved in the bombing. Hull unsuccessfully sued the reporters for defamation and shortly afterward, the Christic Institute brought a $24 million Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act suit, charging the La Penca bombing was a result of a conspiracy carried out since the 1950s outside the control of government oversight. The suit was dismissed days before the trial was to begin. Following an unsuccessful appeal, Christic was ordered to pay over $1 million in court costs for the defendants.

Andrew Smith recalls “crawling around” the terra cotta tile floor of Hull’s Costa Rican ranch house when he was about 3 years old. Later, in 1989, Smith invited Hull to speak to his class at Evansville Day School when he was back in Gibson County.

“I was pretty sure he wore a shoulder holster under his jacket,” Smith remembers.

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Shared Memories

The turning point, where the effort began to sour for Hull, he explains, was when the Sandinistas began a regional peace plan that also required peace talks with the U.S.-backed Contras.

“The U.S. cut off our supplies,” Hull says. “And when they did that, we had wounded in there, and we had no money for fuel, no money for anything. I was running helicopters off of diesel fuel that I had there for the farms. The damn little things; they burn 30 gallons an hour, and it was an hour in and an hour back, and it didn’t take them too long to run through my resources of fuel and money.

“The sad part, then, that really, really affected me was when I had to go in and decide who was going to live and who was going to die. And we took out the ones that could live to fight another day and just left the other guys to die, saying we’d probably be coming back, when we knew damn well we would not. It was really a heartbreaking thing.”

Emelia Leon Hull grew up on a dairy farm — the second youngest of 13 children — on property that borders one of Hull’s ranches and shares the same set of memories with her husband. Hull remembers a “skinny young girl fishing along the river every day,” as twice a week for more than three years, his planes took off and landed with food, medical supplies, weapons, and ammunition. “Emie used to watch the airplanes going, seeing how many left and how many came back when she was just a kid,” Hull recalls.

When the Iran-Contra story broke, Hull’s name was quickly associated with the political scandal in news stories first produced by CBS News and major U.S. newspapers. Costa Rican authorities became less enthusiastic about his support and arrested him on what he calls “trumped up” charges arising from the attempted murder of Pastora at the press conference in La Penca. (The bombing was later tied to an Argentinian.) In 1989, Hull was captured and dragged to prison. During his three-month prison stay, Emie brought him food, essentially saving his life. When Hull’s Costa Rican neighbors bailed him out, he fled Costa Rica for the U.S., bringing Emie with him, eventually arriving back in Gibson County. While there, the Costa Rican government sought his extradition, charging him as a fugitive. The U.S. government refused to honor the request, calling the charges against him “an invention.”

A story on Hull in the May 26, 1991, Washington Post by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jack Anderson, ran with the headline, “The Man Washington Doesn’t Want to Extradite.”

For the next nine years, Hull worked to bring the Gibson County farm back to full production; for 25 years it had been rented out, along with the farmhouse Hull’s grandfather built in 1886. Emie, who spoke virtually no English at the time, enrolled in Vincennes University and also obtained a license to pilot a plane. They married in Morristown, Tenn., and bounced around the U.S. and Canada, visiting friends and relatives, including Hull’s daughter Mary Anna Thrall in Fort Collins, Colo.

A veterinarian and a veterinary pathologist, Thrall has taught clinical pathology at Colorado State University for 32 years. She is also a visiting professor at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine in St. Kitts.

“I had a happy childhood,” Thrall says. “My parents led me to believe that I could do anything I wanted to do. Because of their encouragement, I became a veterinarian when very few women were admitted to veterinary school.”

Thrall, who was born in 1944 in Canada where her father was flying planes for the RAF, says she is very fortunate both of her parents are still alive. Her mother, although divorced from Hull for 20 years, still lives in a stone house Hull built on the Gibson County property; she is looked after by Thrall’s son, Joe Bammer, whose home also is on the family property.

Hull has a son, Johnny, from a long common-law relationship he shared with a Costa Rican woman.

Johnny, Emie says, is a “playboy with big boy toys.” Hull says the Dole Food Co. pays Johnny $150,000 a year to grow pineapples on one-half of his Costa Rican ranch, which his son now owns.

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Rancho IndyMex

Not content to take a backseat to the war that still was waged in Nicaragua, three times after Hull and Emie fled the country for the U.S., they went back into the Nicaraguan war zones.

In 1991, they snuck into the country so Hull could explore some investments to aid the Contras. Because he faced certain assassination if discovered, he asked a friend and former bodyguard to look after Emie while he attended to business. When Hull learned his whereabouts in Nicaragua had been discovered, he sent for Emie and together they left the country for Honduras on foot, climbing a 4,000-foot mountain in the middle of the night.

Life in the Yucatan today isn’t quite so exciting, but not all that different from what Hull has known in the 40 years he’s lived in the tropics.

The Hulls purchased their 3-mile by 1-mile ranch eight years ago and began clearing out the jungle, removing rock, planting grass, installing posts and wire and irrigation, and bulldozing roads to establish their cattle operation, which Emie named (and designed a logo for) “Rancho IndyMex.” They built the attractive, spacious yet utilitarian ranch home six years ago. To thank the Hulls for providing optometry help to the native Mayan population when they first arrived in the Yucatan (something Hull had done years earlier in Costa Rica, as well), local officials offered architectural and engineering help on the design of the home.

A jaguar has entered the home twice, both times through the large picture window in the family room when the Hulls were not inside. Only within the last two years was electricity and phone service established at the ranch. They receive no mail, but the only bill they must regularly pay is the utility bill, and an employee from the utility company drives up and honks the horn to collect it.

“He never gets out of the car,” Emie says, suggesting the utility company employee isn’t keen on the two bull mastiff dogs that guard the property. Daisy and Duke are offspring of Bammer’s bull mastiffs and were shipped from Gibson County to the Yucatan last year via Mexicana Airlines.

While the Hull ranch is not the largest cattle ranch in the Tizimin municipality of the Yucatan, it is the best and most actively managed, according to the veterinarian who regularly visits. Each morning, Emie and the cowboys head out on three of the 15 horses on the ranch to separate the heifers from the cows (the heifers get a special concentrate fed to them) and the calves from the heifers. The morning after I arrived, I saddled up to join them for cowboy duty during a rare steady rain. The area, Hull says, is still very dry entering spring; however, the watermelons and hot peppers, planted in February, are looking good.

In early April the Hulls will return to their Gibson County farm, also called “Rancho IndyMex,” to plant soybeans. Hull plans to again this year drive a tractor. They’ll stay in Southern Indiana until the bean fields are established, before returning to the Yucatan for the summer. They’ll return to Patoka in the fall for harvest.

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Soul Mates

Emie and John Hull are an attractive couple. While he is more than twice her age, their generational differences faded when I met them. They dote on each other, speak to each other endearingly, and worry about each other’s health. She dispenses his medicines before meals, and he worries about the allergies she’s developed in the Yucatan. They’ve not been separated from each other for any length of time since 1991 in Nicaragua, right before they fled the country on foot.

“I’ve not let her out of my sight since then,” Hull says, adding, “Her maiden name was Leon, meaning ‘lion.’ I didn’t know that after she said ‘I do,’ I’d get a tiger.”

Today Emie speaks excellent English and Spanish. Hull speaks Spanish, as well, of course, but they both use English in their home. The natives speak virtually no English, so conversations with employees and villagers are always in Spanish.

It is true that Hull indeed is up to his old tricks. Helping to provide adequate health care to the native populations remains his mission, just as it was in Costa Rica. During my visit with the Hulls, after we finished working with the cattle, we drove to Tizimin, the nearest city (population 70,000), to meet with Eloy Perez, the right-hand man to Jose Peniche, the “presidente” of Tizimin (a position similar to mayor) and Dr. Manuel Rodriguez, the administrator of the hospital. The presidente is a physician, as well as a politician, who is committed to improving the health of the native Mayans. This group, along with Hull and the Rotary Club of Merida (the capital city of the state of Yucatan), is collaborating in an effort to bring an ambulance and other medical equipment to the region.

A Contra Reunion

Last year, Hull and Emie traveled to Washington, D.C., for a Contra reunion. “We talked to Col. North,” Hull says. “We didn’t talk about the past. I was happy to see what was left (of the Contra regime). There were probably 15 guys there, the ex-leaders, and there had been 100 or so when the thing started. That was sort of sad.”

Andrew Smith speculates on what Hull thinks today. “I would think Hull has to take a look around and think the fight is over.”

Leftist parties have won elections in many Central American countries. In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega is a member of the socialist Nicaraguan political party and was returned to power in 2006, after first serving as president during the Contra war, from 1985 to 1990.

Still, “it’s been a lot of fun,” Hull says. “I can’t complain. I’m just a clodhopper from Gibson County. I got to go places and see things that I only dreamed about. And it didn’t take me too long to figure out that everyone was as confused as I was.”

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