The Abernathy Murders, February 19, 1997

The Promis Software Scandal

The Canadian software scandal tied to the Abernathy investigation involved a program called Promis originally written for the US gov't. Much of the original stink about Promis landed in the news media in the early 1990s and was the subject of a US gov't inquiry. At that time, the Promis affair was mostly treated as a sideshow to the Iran/Contra affair. It's great fodder, however, for those into government conspiracy theories because if the Promis allegations are true, then someone in the USA was setting up to spy on Canadian law enforcement agencies.

The theory linking the Abernathy murders and the Promis scandal is really rather odd - like something out of Mission Impossible, one friend said a while back. The Toronto Star has published a great deal on the Promis scandal, some of it as recently as 2000. Amazingly enough, the link to the Toronto Star article that mentions Neal and Brendan is still alive (most recently tested on 06 Sept 08), which is usually not the case for news media articles more than a year old. This link tends to land you nowhere near the actual article - but if you go to the top of the page and then scroll down, you'll find the article easily enough. The linked article is just one part of a series by two Toronto Star reporters on the Promis Scandal and related matters.

When I first read the newspaper reports about the connection between Neal and the Canadian software scandal, I was quite incredulous. A Mission Impossible plot line just isn't the sort of thing that comes to visit the owner of a small business and his son. It really is a stretch. Then I had a chat with a reporter in 2003. This gentleman was thinking about doing a piece on murders thought to be connected to the Promis affair, including the Abernathy murders. He had learned about the murders while researching the Canadian software scandal. What he had to say about the Canadian software connection led me to research this topic more deeply and not dismiss the matter out of hand because of the conspiracy theory taint. (How does that old saying go? Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean that they aren't out to get me...)

Promis was "the ultimate surveillance tool -- a program that could track the movements of literally untold numbers of people in any part of the world." -- Gordon Thomas, Gideon's Spies, 1999--

As the full plot line has unfolded in the press, the whole scenario looks more and more like Mission Impossible. When you look at what's available on line, you will notice that the Promis software scandal is a feature on many "conspiracy theory" websites. If the conspiracy theorists are to be believed, there are ties to the Iran/Contra affair, the C1A, Israel's Moussad, drug running, biological warfare and a local Hercules business. That's quite a list, isn't it? According to the conspiracy theory websites, Promis itself is supposed to be this magical software program that allows operatives in the shadowy world of intelligence to track anyone and anything throughout the world - well, that's the claim at least. In reality, at the time it was written, Promis was a glorified computer-architecture-independent relational database program for tracking criminal case files, with the ability to juggle different data types and formats used by various law enforcement agencies, most likely through the use of "rule-driven" data loaders (the bit about the rule-driven loaders is my conjecture, but as someone who has written a lot of data loaders, I think it's a valid supposition on my part).

It's an old premise that you can't prove a negative in the absence of independent collaborating evidence. For example, you can't prove that there wasn't a version of Promis that could track anyone and anything world wide. There is indirect imperical evidence, however, that Promis as dues-ex-machina doesn't exist. It's simple really: if Promis really worked, then why the #@$%&*!!! haven't we caught Bin Laden yet?

the RCMP's national security section is probing claims the computer software program known as Promis was sold to the RCMP and CSIS in the early 1980s, and then used by U.S. and Israeli agents to eavesdrop on Canada. --Allan Thompson and Valerie Lawton, Toronto Star, 2000--

An engineer by the name of Michael Riconoscuito claimed that he helped modify pirated Promis code destined for Canada by including a "back door" in the program. This back door would allow outside intelligence agencies to hack computers where Promis was installed. As someone who's worked as a software professional on relational databases in Silicon Valley, this scenario sounds a lot more viable to me than claiming that Promis is the ultimate "Big Brother" program. Riconoscuito, who once was the part-owner of a company based in Hercules. He was busted on drug trafficking charges a week after making a public statement about his involvement with Promis. He claims he was framed on the drug charges because he went public about his involvement with Promis. Most of the time I feel rather skeptical about links between Promis and the Abernathys. The only thing that gives me pause is that there appears to be a trail of dead bodies belonging to people who got too close to the Promis software affair, including some who seem to have been bumped off merely for being related to someone on a Promis-related hit list. It is just as probable, however, that the dead body trail is purely or partly coincidental and one could make a strong argument along these lines. In the absence of independent collaborating evidence, Occum's razor would favor the coincidence theory.

It is difficult to relegate Promis to the world of myth and fantasy when so many tangible things, like the recently acknowledged RCMP investigation make it real. Canadians are not known for being wildly emotional types given to sprees. And one must also include the previous findings of Congressional oversight committees and no less than six obvious dead bodies ranging from investigative journalist Danny Casolaro in 1991, to a government employee named Alan Standorf, to British Publisher and lifelong Israeli agent Robert Maxwell also in 1991, to retired Army CID investigator Bill McCoy in 1997. --Michael Rupert, From The Wilderness Publications, 2000--

There is a legitimate objection to the Michael Rupert quote above and it's a big one: being investigated is not proof of wrongdoing just as being arrested is not proof of guilt. Based on two independent lines of evidence, I do think it likely that the Canadians were sold a pirated and cracked version of Promis or something very similar. That aspect of the Promis affair is not in dispute. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is not a keystone cop operation. As law enforcement professionals, it's their job to follow all possible leads. The fact that the RCMP have investigated Promis and questioned Riconoscuito does not mean that the murders are related to the Canadian software scandal. Without independent collaborating evidence, there is no way to prove that murders were or were not related to Promis.

The tie between the Promis affair and Neal Abernathy is Michael Riconoscuito. Neal apparently knew Riconoscuito, though I have no first-hand knowledge or information on where or when they met. In conversations I have had via email and phone calls with journalists working on the Promis affair, I have learned second- and third-hand that Riconoscuito claims he knew Neal from when they both lived in Hercules sometime before Neal went off to college at UCDavis. Such a claim really has given me some pause since I know that Neal lived elsewhere for much or all of his youth.

From my point of view, the more I learn about Riconoscuito, the more I doubt what he has to say. That's my personal opinion, mind you, and even if I have doubts, professionals in the law enforcement business can't afford to be cavalier about any possible leads. It's no surprise that the RCMP and Detective Susan Todd (ret.) of the Hercules PD interviewed Riconoscuito in Pennsylvania, at the prison where he's incarcerated. Apparently, Riconoscuito initiated the contact with the police. It's not within my ability or resources to chase down all of Roconoscuito's claims (always second- or third-hand) and indeed, this website is not about the Promis mess - this website is for Neal and Brendan, to keep our memories "green" and not forget about them even as the murder case gets cold. Cold cases that are forgotten tend never to be solved.

While his tale is critical to understanding what has happened to Promis, the fact remains that Riconosciuto has been out of the loop and in legal trouble for eight years. He has been in a maximum security prison for at least six. What was surprising was that in 1998 he contacted homicide detective Sue Todd in Hercules and told her that the murder of a father and son, execution style, was connected to the Promis story. --Michael Rupert, From The Wilderness Publications, 2000--

You can read up on the whole Promis affair in great and gory detail at multiple conspiracy theory websites. I personally find it hard to swallow a lot of what's been written on the Promis affair because of the conspiracy theory taint. It's hard to separate the dreck from potential facts since conspiracy theorists seem to be remarkably incapable of critical thinking and basic common sense. One author who isn't totally hopeless is Michael Rupert, journalist and former cop. Rupert has written a fair bit about the Promis affair. The article linked here is interesting (subscription now required), though I do find it discouraging that Rupert seems to believe some rather outrageous claims about software and technology, claims which as an engineer and research scientist I know are untrue even with today's modern gadgets. Regardless, Rupert manages to succinctly catalog the trail of murders and strange happenings that have followed along in Michael Riconoscuito's wake. Rupert has also included some interesting information about the investigation led by Hercules PD Detective (ret.) Susan Todd.

Though much longer than Rupert's article, another source that isn't too horribly contaminated with conspiracy theories is an ebook called The Last Circle (subscription now required) by reporter Cheri Seymour under the pen name of Carol Marshall. Both Rupert and Seymour discuss the Abernathy murder, though neither of them provides any information as to how Neal Abernathy might have been connected to Promis other knowing Riconoscuito.

You will notice that both these links are from a web site called This site has recently gone down the very annoying "you must subscribe" path that has spread across the internet like a bad case of cyber-measles. The content is still free but personally I'll be purging my cache and cookies now after each visit. If you go poking about the American Buddha site, I think you will agree that it contains a really very odd collection of stuff, including some rather poor poetry and an entire page of Promis related links.)

Because of the Promis connection with the Abernathy murders, I field occasional inquiries from journalists. I'll be up front and say that after doing some of my own digging, I have little faith in what Riconoscuito claims. One of these days, if I have the time, I may build a webpage detailing why I think so. This isn't to say that I'm not open to further journalistic inquiries, but I think it's only fair to say up front that I have my doubts about Riconoscuito as a source.