Clinton Offer Includes Mastermind of 1983 Wells Fargo Robbery

August 12, 1999 - Hartford Courant

President Clinton on Wednesday offered to commute the prison sentences of members of two violent Puerto Rican independence groups, including Juan E. Segarra-Palmer, mastermind of the $7.1 million Wells Fargo robbery in West Hartford in 1983.

The 16 convicted independence advocates are members of the FALN guerrilla group and Los Macheteros, radical organizations responsible for at least 130 bomb attacks on political and military targets in the mainland United States and in Puerto Rico from 1974 to 1983. They stole millions of dollars to finance a war against the United States.

The president imposed conditions on the clemency offer: the individuals must sign written statements agreeing to renounce violence and abide by any conditions imposed upon them by the government. Administration officials said none of those affected were involved in any deaths.

But if the independence activists offered the commutation by Clinton were not directly involved in causing deaths by violence, their organizations were.

Only weeks after the Wells Fargo robbery, Los Macheteros launched a rocket attack on the U.S. District Courthouse in San Juan, Puerto Rico, heavily damaging the building.

No one was hurt in the weekend attack because whoever fired the Cuban-supplied anti-tank weapon at the courthouse missed FBI offices where three bureau employes were working. The rocket round hit a judge's office, which happened to be vacant.

Los Macheteros killed two U.S. sailors in San Juan, attacked a busload of military members on another occasion and destroyed U.S. military aircraft in yet another attack.

When Filiberto Ojeda-Rios, who founded Los Macheteros, was arrested for his part in the Wells Fargo robbery, he fired on FBI agents, hitting one agent in the head and costing him the sight in one eye.

Ojeda-Rios is not among those included in Clinton's clemency offer Wednesday. He jumped bail in the 1980s and is still a fugitive believed to be traveling between Cuba and Puerto Rico, where he continues the group's bombing attacks.

The FALN, the Spanish-language abbreviation for Armed Forces of National Liberation, claimed responsibility for dozens of bombing attacks on targets in Chicago and New York that maimed or killed numerous people. One attack was on the historic Fraunces Tavern in New York, which was packed with tourists. Justice Department spokeswoman Chris Watney declined to explain Clinton's reasons for the clemency offer. She said the Justice Department, as is customary, submitted a report and recommendation to Clinton, but she declined to describe it.

A source familiar with the Justice Department's Macheteros prosecution in Hartford -- one of the longest and most complicated trials in U.S. history when it concluded in 1989 -- said the president's commutation offer was "out of the blue."

Federal prosecutors had periodically submitted memoranda on the case to Washington, but never recommended commutation, the source said.

Administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Clinton's action was in response to a campaign by human rights advocates who have argued that members of the FALN and Los Macheteros were punished too harshly in light of their crimes. The commutations were recommended by Charles F.C. Ruff, the chief counsel who left his White House post last Friday.

"What the president did, based on the recommendation of counsel, was grant clemency to individuals on a case-by-case basis that recognized the serious nature of the crimes that they were convicted of, but also took into account the excessive nature of the sentences that were imposed upon them 20 years ago," said one administration official.

"The persons here were not convicted in cases involving death or serious injury," the official said.

Edwin Vargas Jr., a Hartford educator who in the 1970s was president of the Hartford branch of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party -- which supported violent acts to achieve Puerto Rican independence -- warmly supported the offer of a pardon. Vargas was purged from the party in 1976 for not supporting its exclusive agenda of violence in support of independence.

"In reality, the political prisoners don't see themselves as criminals but as patriots," said Vargas, a member of the National Puerto Rican Coalition and first vice president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers. "They've been punished long enough."

Hartford Deputy Mayor Frances Sanchez said: "They've already spent enough time in jail. I'm relieved. I believe these sentences exceeded the norm. Many people questioned whether they received fair trials."

Segarra-Palmer, who conceived the Wells Fargo heist, was sentenced to 65 years in prison and is serving his sentence in a federal prison in Florida. Under Clinton's offer, he would have to serve more time in prison before his release.

The other Macheteros affected by the offer are Antonio Camacho-Negron, Roberto Maldonado-Rivera and Norman Ramirez-Talavera. Clinton's offer would forgive the balance of the fines imposed against them upon at sentencing if they renounce future violence.

Prosecutors branded those convicted for FALN and Machetero activities as terrorists. But in recent months, Puerto Rican and U.S. church leaders, politicians and residents have sent 75,000 signatures to the White House to demand the prisoners' freedom. South Africa's retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu; Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil rights leader; and three members of Congress are among them.

The commutation decision was disclosed shortly after Puerto Rico's governor, Pedro Rossello, attended a White House ceremony for Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees, including Isolina Ferre, a Puerto Rican nun recognized for her work with the poor.

Rossello, a proponent of Puerto Rican statehood and long an opponent of clemency for the prisoners, said that Clinton "did this in the most prudent and just manner possible."

Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States after the Spanish-American War in 1898. It is a U.S. commonwealth that enjoys local autonomy but has no vote in Congress or for president. The Puerto Rican independence movement, which traditionally has had minuscule popular support and is nurtured largely by the island intelligencia, predated U.S. possession of the island.

The Wells Fargo robbery was one of the most spectacular crimes ever committed in Connecticut. At the time, it was the largest cash robbery in United State's history.

Victor Gerena, a Bulkeley High School graduate who was working part time as a minumum wage driver for Wells Fargo, tied up two coworkers at gunpoint and injected them with a sleeping potion. He made off with a half a ton of cash in a beat up sedan he hired from the Ugly Duckling rental agency. The robbery took place on the day he and his fiance obtained a marriage licence.

For months, authorities suspected that the robbery was an organized-crime heist and that Gerena would prove expendable. They expected to find his body floating in the Connecticut River.

It was the investigation of the rocket attack in San Juan that linked the Puerto Rican independence movement to the robbery. Eventually, the investigation showed that the robbery was partly financed and supported by the Cuban intelligence service.

Segarra-Palmer, a Harvard University graduate with a hunger for publicity, eventually wrote a screenplay about the robbery. In it, he described how he recruited Gerena and planned the robbery.

Gerena was smuggled into Mexico City with the money. Ultimately, he was given phony Argentinian identity papers and flown into Cuba; the government there continues to deny his existance.

There is precedent for pardons. In 1977 and 1979, President Carter pardoned four Puerto Rican nationalists who were convicted in a 1954 shooting attack on Congress that wounded five lawmakers. Carter also pardoned a fifth nationalist who was convicted of plotting to kill President Truman in 1950.

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