Hartford Wells Fargo Trial: 1988-89

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Hartford Wells Fargo Trial: 1988-89

Defendants: Antonio Camacho Negron, Juan E. Segarra Palmer, Roberto J. Maldonado Rivera, Carlos M. Ayes Suarez, Norman Ramirez Talavera
Crimes Charged: A 17-count indictment that included charges of conspiracy in belonging to a corrupt organization, planning a robbery, transporting the stolen money across state lines, helping the robber to escape, and laundering the money
Chief Defense Lawyers: Juan Ramon Acevedo, Linda A. Backiel, James Bergenn, Roberto J. Maldonado Rivera, Leonard Weinglass
Chief Prosecutors: Leonard Boyle, Albert S. Dabrowski, Carmen Espinosa Van Kirk
Judge: T. Emmett Claire
Place: Hartford, Connecticut
Date of Trial: September 6, 1988April 10, 1989
Verdicts: Ayes: innocent of all charges; Segarra: guilty of 11 counts involving three major charges (conspiracy, planning a robbery, transporting stolen money); Maldonado and Ramirez: guilty of conspiracy; Camacho: guilty of transporting stolen money
Sentences: Segarra: 65 years imprisonment (reduced to 55 on appeal); Camacho: 15 years imprisonment; Maldonado: 5 years imprisonment and $100,000 fine; Ramirez: 5 years imprisonment and $50,000 fine

SIGNIFICANCE: What began with a robbery developed into a trial for conspiracy involving alleged terrorists linked to the decades-old struggle by small groups of Puerto Ricans seeking total independence from the United States. The known perpetrator of the robbery was not present and the government could not establish the true nature of the conspiracy, so there were charges of a political "show trial," although years later the government's position would be considerably vindicated.

About 9:30 p.m. on September 12, 1983, Victor Gerena and a coworker arrived back at the Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford, Connecticut, after a day spent collecting several million dollars from banks and other clients of the armed car service. Their boss had arrived somewhat earlier with his truckload of another $5 million. As they were occupied with various chores, Gerena suddenly pulled the pistol from the boss's holster and ordered the two men to lie on the floor. After handcuffing his boss's wrists and taping and tying up his coworker, he injected the two men with some substance that in fact had no effect. But as the two men lay there powerless for some 90 minutes, Gerena carried some $7.1 million into the beat-up Buick LeSabre he had rented two days earlier, then drove off into the night.

The Perfect Crime?

The next day Gerena's Buick was found abandoned at a hotel lot elsewhere in Hartford. There was no question that Victor Gerena had carried out the robbery. But with whose help? He had no record as a criminal of any sort, so he must have had accomplices. How else could he have vanished without a trail? And why? No one questioned could come up with any explanation for a motive. Of Puerto Rican origin, he had no known affiliation with any organizations, criminal or otherwise. He even left behind a fianc6e. Yet somehow this ordinary "joe" had managed to carry off the second largest robbery in American history.

As months, then years, passed, the crime vanished from most people's consciousness. There were rumors that Gerena had somehow escaped to Cuba with his money, but this was based more on speculation than any real evidence. Then suddenly, on August 30, 1985, some 250 FBI agents and U.S. marshals, operating from the U.S. Naval Base at Roosevelt Roads in eastern Puerto Rico, descended on homes and offices across Puerto Rico and arrested numerous individuals. Many of those arrested were soon released, but eventually 19 individuals were charged with conspiracy involving a corrupt organization, Los Macheteros ("The Machete Wielders"), and more specifically, with planning and helping to carry out the 1983 Wells Fargo robbery in Hartford. Victor Gerena, however, was not among those apprehended.

Background to the Robbery

The organization that these individuals were accused of being involved with, Los Macheteros, was one of several in a decades-old struggle by some Puerto Ricans to attain total independence for their island. Leading independistas had been imprisoned for violent and/or "seditious" actions since the 1930s. In the early 1980s the U.S. government had begun a major campaign to crack down on groups of Puerto Ricans charged with conducting a series of bombings of U.S. government, military, and corporate targets (one of which killed two U.S. sailors). Los Macheteros, organized by a leading radical nationalist, Filiberto Ojeda Rios, and based primarily in Puerto Rico, actually took credit for some of these actions. When the government rounded up and charged the 19including Ojeda Rioswith involvement in the Wells Fargo robbery, some of the individuals openly boasted that Los Macheteros had indeed masterminded it.

In proceedings leading up to the trial, nine defendants, including Ojeda Rios, were severed from the others because the government was appealing a ruling that threw out 50 reels of wiretap tapes crucial to their cases. Charges against three others were dismissed. That left seven defendants to face a trial. Two of these, however, would choose to plea bargain with the government before the case went to trial. Luz Berrios Berrios, wife of the leading defendant, Juan Segarra Palmer, pled guilty to sending several thousand of the stolen dollars to Hartford to buy toys for Puerto Rican children and was sentenced to five years. Paul S. Weinberg, a lawyer and college classmate of Segarra pled guilty to a misdemeanor for his connection with the transportation of the stolen money. Hewas sentenced to a year in prison. With these matters disposed of, the trial of the remaining five defendants proceeded.

Trial Focuses on Conspiracy

The trial began on September 6, 1988, in the federal courthouse in Hartford, Connecticut, with the selection of a jury. After several weeks, a jury of six women and six men had been drawn from Connecticut cities well removed from Hartford; even so, federal judge T. Emmett Claire announced that their names would not be made public to protect them from any possible threats or attacks. (The defense not unexpectedly objected to this and other security measures, claiming it prejudicially associated the defendants with violence.)

Finally on October 11, both sides made their opening statements. The government said it intended to prove that Gerena had been recruited by Los Macheteros to carry out the robbery so that the group could use the money to finance their activities, including acts of violence. Beyond that, the government said it would show that these particular individuals had to varying degrees actually aided in the planning of the robbery and the successful escape of Gerena and the transporting of the money. The defense, while admitting that some of them might be associated with Los Macheteros and even have been aware of aspects of the robbery, said they would show that their clients had no direct involvement in the robbery.

From the very first day of the trial, however, one of the defendants, Juan Segarra Palmer, emerged as the major player in this drama. He was thirty-eight years old, from a Puerto Rican family with a history of resistance to both Spanish and U.S. authorities, a Harvard graduate, and with a longtime and extensive commitment to leftist social and political causes. Segarra admitted freely that Gerena had discussed with him his intention to carry out the robbery and then had turned over most of the $7.1 million to him in Mexico City.

In fact, Segarra seemed almost to welcome the spotlight cast on him by the trial. He seemed anxious to promote the revolutionary goals of Los Macheteros (although it was soon revealed that he no longer belonged to the groupallegedly he was dismissed for being overly independent). Before the trial began, he had announced: "I don't recognize the legitimacy of the court or the whole proceeding. All I am guilty of is opposition to colonialism, which is a crime against humanity, like apartheid."

In the early weeks of the trial, when the government produced tapes of telephone calls between him and Gerena and members of Los Macheteros charged with being involved in the robbery, Segarra always had explanations that attempted to exonerate himself from direct involvement.

The most damaging witness, however, was Anne L. Gassin, also a Harvard graduate and Segarra's onetime girlfriend from his days of lying low in Cambridge after the robbery. She claimed that Segarra had not only hidden the stolen money in Massachusetts for over a year after the robbery, but that he had supervised Camacho, one of the other defendants, in the job of making secret compartments in a motor home so that the money could be taken to Mexico. She also freely admitted to having helped "launder" some of the money in Bostonarea banks.

Her most surprising testimony, however, was that Segarra had shown her a 60-page manuscript that he had written, setting forth some of the exact details of the robbery. She said that Segarra claimed it was going to be used as the basis for a film about the robbery. Segarra's attorney tried to shake her testimony:

Weinglass: You are putting together a screenplay and your discussion and you can't pull them apart.

Gassin: It's not mixed in together. I know what I read and I know what he told me.

The defense never mounted much of a case except to reiterate that there was little or no hard evidence linking any of the defendants to the robbery itself. Even the government's witness, a man who had allegedly sold Segarra the motorcycle that Gerena had then allegedly used to flee from Hartford into Massachusetts, could not pick Segarra out in the courtroom. As a result, after six months of trial (seven including jury selection), the jury returned on April 10, 1989, with a mixed bag of verdicts that allowed both sides to claim victory. Only Segarra was found guilty of the serious charge of planning the robbery; he, Maldonado and Ramirez were found guilty of conspiracy; and he and Camacho were found guilty of helping to transport the money.

Mystery and Controversy Linger On

The robber who was at the heart of this whole case had all but been lost sight of in the course of the trial. The government, even after five years, still had little definite knowledge of just how Gerena came to be involved with Los Macheteros, or how he got away with the money, or where he was. All that would come out many years later: how he had been recruited by Segarra through mutual contacts in the Hartford Puerto Rican communityprobably because Gerena's mother was politically active; how soon after the robbery Gerena had been smuggled across the border into Mexico (with about $2 million) in the same motor home later used to get the rest of the money into Mexico; and how Gerena flew from Mexico to Cuba, where he almost certainly remained ever since.

There are numerous claims as to what happened to the $7.1 million. The usual story is that at least $2 million was taken by Gerena to Cuba; Ojeda Rios, founder of Los Macheteros denies that. In fact, the U.S. government claims it has records proving that much of the money was dispensed to various individuals in New England and Puerto Rico. It would also come out later that Cuban agents had given Segarra and the Los Macheteros some $50,000 to support the robbery. Even more unsettling, it was revealed that the U.S. government knew from early on that Cuba had been supporting, even directing, the violent activities of Los Macheteros and other Puerto Rican radical groups but chose not to bring that into the trial.

And in what aroused considerable controversy at the time, in August 2000 President William Clinton issued executive clemency to 16 Puerto Rican radicals involved in various actions on behalf of the Puerto Rican independence movement. Among them were Segarra and Camacho, who had their sentences reduced (although Segarra would have to serve five more years), and Maldonado and Ramirez, who had their outstanding fines forgiven. Because the clemency was conditional on renouncing all further activities and associations with independistas, Camacho declined. Meanwhile, the world was still awaiting the final chapter of the Wells Fargo robberythe fate of Victor Gerena.

John S. Bowman

Suggestions for Further Reading

Fernandez, Ronald. Los Macheteros: The Wells Fargo Robbery and the Violent Struggle for Puerto Rican Independence. New York: Prentice Hall, 1987.

Hartford Couran. October 11, 12, 13, 14, 25, 26, 29, 1988; December 1, 2, 3, 1988; January 11, 12, 13, 1989; February 1, 3, 4, 1989; March 28, 29, 30, 1989; April 11, 12, 1989; June 16, 1989.

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Hartford Wells Fargo Trial: 1988-89

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