Day 6

How a 10-year-old American girl became pen pals with Manuel Noriega

This week, former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega died. In the late '80s, Sarah York saw a side of him few people ever did. She was 10 years old, living in a small town in northern Michigan when she wrote to Noriega and they became pen pals.
Fourteen-year-old Sarah York speaks to reporters outside U.S. District Court in Miami, Florida, April 2, 1992, after attending Manuel Noriega's drug trial. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

When Sarah York was 10 years old, she became involved in an unlikely relationship.

After seeing him on the television program 60 Minutes, and admiring his hat, York wrote a letter to Panamanian General Manuel Noriega. Much to her surprise, he wrote back.

That was in 1988, and although Noriega had previously worked for decades as a spy for the CIA, he had gone on to become the de facto leader of Panama. A dictator, he was highly involved in the drug trade, which had earned him the disapproval of the American government.

But to York, he was a world leader who had written to her, asked about her life in northern Michigan, and sent her gifts in the mail — including a hat similar to the one she'd admired on TV.

Noriega died in Panama on Monday at the age of 83. He underwent brain surgery in March.

She told me the story, and I was blown away.- Andrea Morningstar, documentary producer

Andrea Morningstar first met York in high school, at a boarding school for the arts in Michigan. As she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, she learned about York's pen pal after flipping through her friend's photo album.

"It was before the days of cellphones, and everybody brought little photo albums with them of friends and family from back home," explains Morningstar.

Morningstar says that York had typical photos in her album, including photos of her family. But then there were pictures of her with a different family in Panama.

"I mentioned, 'hey, this guy looks like Manuel Noriega'. And she said, 'well, it is'," says Morningstar with a laugh. "And it was a picture of her holding Manuel Noriega's newly born grandson … and then she told me the story, and I was blown away."

Sarah York meets General Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1989. (CNN)

The trip to Panama

After corresponding with her over many months, Noriega eventually sent York an invitation to travel to Panama at his expense.

At first, York's parents weren't sure if she should go. Her uncle was concerned about Noriega's reputation as a brutal dictator and frowned upon the relationship. But in the end, with her grandmother's approval to seal the deal, York travelled to Panama with her mother.

The two landed in Panama to a celebrity's welcome. They were surrounded by media throughout their trip.

Manuel Antonio Noriega takes part in a conference at the Atlapa center in this file photo in Panama City October 11,1989. (Alberto Lowe/Reuters)

"I met everyone from the President to kids playing in the street, and visited schools and churches," explains York. "It was a very rich experience, and a very eye-opening one for a little girl from the woods of northern Michigan."

York and her mother also had a personal meeting with Noriega in which they were able to talk and ask questions.

"I think I played him my best piano piece," York says with an embarrassed laugh.

While York was making the front pages in Panamanian newspapers, the reaction wasn't always as warm back home. She was criticized for maintaining a relationship with someone who was considered to be a brutal dictator.

I wanted to promote peace and understanding, that was my message.- Sarah York

Asked how she responded to her critics, York says she "focused on the positive things that could come out of a relationship like that."

"I wanted to promote peace and understanding, that was my message," says York.

The documentary

York and Morningstar remained friends after high school, and years later, just after Morningstar had finished film school, she learned about a call for stories for the U.S. public radio program This American Life. The theme was 'Love Your Enemy.'

Morningstar successful pitched York's story — her very first documentary. "My Pen Pal" was first broadcast on TAL in 2003, and later gained renewed popularity as a podcast.

The documentary featured York, her mother Pauline and father Mitchell.

In the documentary, York talks about the difficulty in dealing with her critics.

Sarah York speaks about her visit to see General Manuel Noriega in Panama. (CNN)

She recalls one radio interview, which was recorded live from her principal's office. The interview started out normally, but then the tone changed and York felt attacked by the radio host — to the point that she started to cry.

"He was saying things like: 'do you know that Noriega rapes girls your age?', and things like that," explains York, in the documentary. "I couldn't believe that he would have the gall to say that to an 11 or 12-year-old girl. And that his listeners would think that was OK."

Through her tears, York wasn't able to respond to that host. But looking back, she wishes she could have told him off on the air.

I think that I had my worldview blasted wide open.- Sarah York

Negative experiences with the media made York a little wary of having her story told again on public radio.

"I think I have been misquoted so many times, or just misrepresented. It's just hard to see that and not believe that it's going to happen again," says York. "I didn't want to go through that again."

As a young producer who was new to journalism, the documentary was a learning experience for Morningstar. She told York that she could hear a cut of the documentary before it was broadcast, which is not the usual practice among journalists. That caused some tension between the two friends.

"But we got through it, and I think in the end … that Sarah liked the results and felt good about the final result," says Morningstar.

Morningstar and York have now decided to do a follow-up film documentary, which they hope will be available by 2019.


Noriega's death

In 1989, the U.S. invaded Panama and arrested Noriega for drug trafficking. Throughout his trial and imprisonment, York and her family kept in touch. They went to see him during his trial in Florida.

York says she had been preparing for Noriega's death, knowing he had been in a coma since having brain surgery in March.

Manuel Noriega, 77, Panama's former strongman, poses for a photograph in this picture received by Reuters in Panama City December 14, 2011. (Panama's Ministry of Government and Justice/Handout via Reuters)

"I'm a little sad that I haven't had the chance to see him in recent years. But I was also glad I shared a letter with him about a week before he had his surgery," says York.

When asked what Noriega got out of his relationship with her, York jokes that he got some "really good images."

She acknowledges that Noriega likely used her for his political gain, and that the relationship probably softened his image. But despite that, she says she's thankful for her pen pal.

"I think that I had my worldview blasted wide open. To see a different part of the world, to see poverty like I'd never seen before, to be exposed to more than my little world that I had seen previously," says York.

"I think it's made my life a pretty interesting one."

To hear Brent Bambury's interview with Sarah York and Andrea Morningstar, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.