Foul Play in Iraq?

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The Army has launched a fraud investigation into the mysterious disappearance of an American contractor in Iraq and the killing of a co-worker shortly afterward, Defense officials tell TIME. On Oct. 9, 2003, Kirk von Ackermann, 37, was driving alone in northern Iraq when he pulled off the road with a flat tire and phoned the Kirkuk office of his employer—Ultra Services, based in Winters, Calif.—for help.

A colleague arrived and found the car but not Von Ackermann. There were no bloodstains or bullet holes in the vehicle. And Von Ackermann didn't seem to be the victim of bandits because his computer, satellite phone and a briefcase containing $40,000 in cash were left in the car.

Two months later, north of Baghdad, gunmen in an SUV shot and killed Ryan Manelick, 31, another Ultra Services employee, and an Iraqi traveling with him by car. Manelick's father claims that his son had e-mailed him saying he suspected that colleagues at Ultra Services—whose website says it has done $14 million worth of business with the Pentagon—were involved in fraudulent activities with U.S. Army contracting officers. The Army's Criminal Investigation Command has confirmed that Manelick met with its investigators in Iraq but won't say what was discussed. TIME, however, has obtained an e-mail written by an Army investigator, who says Manelick visited her days before he died and said he was "fearful for his life." The e-mail doesn't say why.

Ultra Services executives couldn't be reached for comment, and it's unclear whether the construction firm is still in business.

Suspecting that Von Ackermann and Manelick weren't the victims of random violence, the investigative command turned the cases over to its Major Procurement Fraud Unit. Spokesman Chris Grey says the probe has been slowed because of the "complexities of this case" and the difficulties of collecting evidence in a war zone.