By MICHAEL MELIA, Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ One by one, and as recently as this week, the suspects in a 1983 heist that netted $7 million for a militant group have been tracked down. All 17 of them –except for the part-time armored car guard accused of playing the central role in what was then the biggest cash robbery in U.S. history.
And if Victor Manuel Gerena is in Cuba, as the FBI believes, there’s little hope that authorities will catch him anytime soon.
He’s charged with ambushing fellow guard James McKeon, hog-tying him and jamming a needle into his neck before loading the money into a rented Buick and driving off from the West Hartford armored car depot. Gerena could have left with twice as much money, McKeon said, but the rest apparently wouldn’t fit in the car.
With a coat smothering his head, McKeon listened as Gerena stuffed the cash into duffel bags. “I thought he was going to kill me,” McKeon said. “All I said was `Vic,’ and he said `Jim, I’ve got nothing against you. I’m just tired of working for other people.”’
Gerena has been on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list since 1984, longer than any other fugitive. With the arrest of an alleged accomplice Tuesday in a Puerto Rican mountain town, Gerena is the only person still at large in the crime he was allegedly recruited for by Los Macheteros, a militant wing of the broader movement for Puerto Rican independence.
U.S. authorities say Gerena is among dozens of American fugitives who have received sanctuary from the communist government. Cuba has long advocated for Puerto Rico’s independence from the United States, and some people, including a former Cuban intelligence agent, have claimed the government of Fidel Castro helped finance the Wells Fargo heist.
As Havana and Washington take halting steps toward improved relations, U.S. authorities hope there will be an opportunity to arrest Gerena.
“That’s not going to happen now, but there is always a chance to capture fugitives,” said Luis Fraticelli, the special agent in charge of FBI operations in Puerto Rico.
Los Macheteros, whose name is translated as “Machete Wielders” or “Cane Cutters,” are suspected of using the stolen money to finance bombings and attacks in their push for independence for the U.S. territory. Most of their violent activities took place in the 1970s and 1980s, including a 1979 attack on a bus carrying U.S. sailors that killed two and wounded 10.
A total of 17 people were indicted in Hartford in connection with the robbery, but none played a bigger role than the Macheteros’ inside man, Gerena _ a New York-born college dropout whose mother, Gloria, was an ardent supporter of independence for Puerto Rico.
“Victor pulled the whole thing off by himself,” McKeon said. “He was a really good worker and everything, but you never know about a guy.”
It was the night of Sept. 12, 1983, and McKeon was doing paperwork to close out his shift inside the Wells Fargo depot when Gerena, then 25, grabbed McKeon’s gun and tied him up along with another guard. He injected both with an incapacitating substance; McKeon later learned from the hospital that it was a mixture of aspirin and water.
There have been bigger cash robberies since in the U.S.: In 1997, three netted more than $17 million each, including one in Los Angeles in which $18.9 million was stolen.
McKeon, now 52, said police interrogated him for two days following the robbery. The depot later closed, and McKeon blames Gerena for his loss of a good-paying manager’s job.
“When Victor robbed me, I went back to driving a truck and cooking,” said McKeon, who lives in Suffield, Conn., and works as a cook at a restaurant.
West Hartford Police Chief James Strillacci, who was a young sergeant in the wealthy Hartford suburb at the time of the robbery, said he has followed the case closely even though it is in the hands of federal authorities. Since Gerena has not surfaced with any public remarks, he said it’s impossible to know whether Gerena was motivated more by ideology or profit.
A former Cuban intelligence agent who defected to Europe in the 1990s, Jorge Masetti, wrote in a book and testified to U.S. authorities that the Cuban government provided $50,000 in “seed money” for the robbery. He said the loot was smuggled across the border to Mexico in a recreational vehicle, and that he was involved in shipping some of the $7 million haul from the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City to Havana. Cuban officials have dismissed his account.
Since last year, Gerena has been on the FBI’s most wanted list longer than anyone else in its history. Donald Eugene Webb, who allegedly killed the police chief in Saxonburg, Pa., in 1980, was taken off the list in 2007 after more than 25 years and 10 months because many believed he was already dead.
Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute think tank, said the U.S. State Department has protested the presence of some of its most wanted fugitives in Cuba, but it is politically awkward because Cuba would like to prosecute some people living in the U.S.
“There’s no evidence of any serious negotiations going on that address the fugitives,” he said.
The government in Havana did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Gerena.
The last of the other fugitives in the Wells Fargo heist have been tracked down recently in Puerto Rico. On Tuesday, the FBI arrested Norberto Gonzalez Claudio, 65, who is suspected of helping to smuggle the cash out of the U.S. mainland. On Friday he was ordered to be extradited to Connecticut to face charges that include bank robbery, transportation of stolen money and conspiracy.
That arrest followed the 2008 capture of Gonzalez’s older brother, Avelino, who was sentenced last year to seven years in prison for his role in the heist. In 2005, an FBI shootout at a farmhouse in western Puerto Rico killed Filiberto Ojeda Rios, a Machetero leader who jumped bond in 1990 while awaiting trial.
Fraticelli said the breaks over the last six years have resulted from the persistence of agents and officers assigned to a joint anti-terrorism task force. “We made sure we connected the dots,” he said.
The FBI has offered a $1 million reward for information leading to Gerena’s capture. As long as he remains in Cuba, however, observers say prosecutors are unlikely to completely resolve the case anytime soon.
“The only way they could get Gerena is if all the clutter in our relationship with Cuba gets lifted,” said James Bergenn, a Connecticut attorney who represented Avelino Gonzalez Claudio.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)