The five women were from small-town America but chose to live in the midst of one of West Africa’s most brutal civil wars. Each belonged to the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, a St. Louis–based Catholic order; each had volunteered to live in Liberia, not only as missionaries but also as desperately needed relief workers.
In 1993, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch profiled the nuns. Sister Barbara Muttra, the eldest of the group at 69, ministered to refugees during the height of the Vietnam War before moving to Liberia in the early 1970s. Sister Mary Joel Kolmer, 58, was a cancer survivor who returned to Liberia after surgery to remove a tumor. Sister Agnes Mueller, 62, was both a trained nurse and a theologian who taught aspirant nuns at the sisters’ convent. Sister Shirley Kolmer, 61, who served as a high school principal in Monrovia, advocated forcefully — and successfully — for the nuns’ return to Liberia after fighting between Charles Taylor’s rebels and government troops forced the nuns to flee in 1990. And Sister Kathleen McGuire, 54, the only sister who was new to Liberia, once made a pilgrimage to the graves of five American nuns murdered in El Salvador in 1980. It would be a tragedy the five nuns in Liberia would share, slaughtered 20 years ago last week by men believed to be loyal to Taylor.
Their deaths have gone unpunished, but not for lack of evidence. Investigators in Liberia and the U.S. identified some of the individuals they believed responsible, but for reasons both political and legal, it is unlikely that anyone will ever be brought to justice.
In Liberia, the search for justice ran headlong into a peculiar politics of the postwar society. Despite the death of nearly a quarter-million people during the war, not a single person has been prosecuted domestically for a crime related to the conflict.
The killings remain among the darkest episodes of the war for both Liberians and Americans. In October 1992, Taylor launched the most notorious offensive in his bid to take power, a fast-moving, multipronged attack called Operation Octopus.
On Oct. 20, 1992, Muttra and Mary Joel Kolmer left their home in Gardnersville, Liberia, to drive a Liberian colleague to his nearby village. They never made it to their destination: the women and the Liberian man were shot to death in their vehicle, along with two African peacekeepers the women picked up along the way.