The year was 1985 and the federal courthouse in Hartford was on the world stage.
One by one, members of a Puerto Rican independence group were brought before judges, accused of a brazen heist that netted $7.1 million and culminated years of anti-American atttacks. So notorious were Los Macheteros, or the Machete Wielders, that then-U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese ordered machine-gun toting soldiers to guard the courthouse.
“They put on this big show, to make them look like terrorists,” said James W. Bergenn, a partner in the Hartford office of Shipman & Goodwin who represented two of the defendants. “All of the lefty lawyers were dying to get involved in this case. There was nothing more exciting.”
Fast-forward to last week. At the same courthouse, the lengthy drama moved one act closer to its conclusion in a much more sedate fashion. With minimal fanfare, one of the defendants who helped stage the 1983 robbery of the Wells Fargo armored car depot in West Hartford was sentenced to five years in prison.
At the hearing, Norberto Gonzalez-Claudio, now a 67-year-old grandfather, said he looks forward to putting his criminal past behind him. “Family is all that matters,” Gonzalez said.
The money taken by Los Macheteros has never been recovered. The group still exists today, but it’s a much more low-key organization that has long since abandoned its violent ways. Lawyers who have represented its members say it’s a far cry from the mid-1980s, when, for a lawyer who wanted national publicity, “this was the dream case of a lifetime,” Bergenn said.
For decades, there has been division in Puerto Rico over its political relationship with the United States. Citizens of the U.S. territory were given the right to vote in 1917, but do not have representation in Congress. Some have called for statehood (as the majority did again in a non-binding Nov. 6 referendum), while others have actively sought independence.
Los Macheteros were among those leading the charge for independence. The group made headlines for a series of terrorist actions against what it considered to be U.S. colonization. In 1979, there were two separate shooting attacks on buses filled with sailors stationed in the Caribbean. In all, three were killed and 12 injured. In 1981, the group infiltrated a Puerto Rican Air National Guard base and damaged 11 fighter jets, causing an estimated $45 million in damage.
The group then set its sights on Connecticut, where a complex robbery operation dubbed Aquila Blanca [White Eagle] was planned over a two-year period. The organizers identified the West Hartford armored car depot as the target. Millions of dollars were brought there each day in armored vehicles that made pickups at banks and businesses.
Victor Gerena, who had been a Wells Fargo driver for only a few months, was the inside man. FBI agents told the Hartford Courant at the time that the organizers found Gerena through his mother, who lived in Puerto Rico and was loyal to the nationalist cause.
On Sept. 12, 1983, the plot unfolded. Witnesses told authorities that Gerena came back to the depot with a load of cash at 9:30 p.m. He and two guards were supposed to count the multi-million dollars collected that day, but Gerena’s colleagues were captivated by a Monday night football game. Gerena took the opportunity to grab one of their guns. He then handcuffed one guard, tied the other with rope and then injected both with an unidentified substance — presumably a drug intended to make them sleep.
The two doped guards never did sleep. They laid on the floor for an hour and a half while Gerena packed money into bags and dragged them to his getaway car.
Over the next three years, the cash was carried across the country in small amounts by members of the conspiracy, mostly through Texas into Mexico. Some of the money, investigators said, ended up in Cuba where it was allegedly used to support the Castro regime.
Genera has never been found.
The FBI, of course, responded to the robbery with a massive investigation. Bergenn recalls dozens of agents being put on the case and, in response, the independence group pretty much taunting the feds. “It was like the Yankees and Red Sox,” Bergenn said.
For example, Los Macheteros organized a toy drive in December after the robbery. They recruited young college graduates from Puerto Rico to fly up and take part in a parade down Park Street in Hartford, “literally giving out toys,” Bergenn said.
The Macheteros sent out letters to supporters claiming the toy giveaway was conducted with proceeds of the robbery and the FBI swarmed in to find the organizers. Among those arrested were Bergenn’s client, Carlos Ayes-Suarez, an archaeologist accused of helping to transport robbery proceeds out of the country.
In fact, indictments were filed against 19 defendants in 1985, and most were marched into the heavily guarded Hartford courthouse for arraignments, some accompanied by prominent civil rights lawyers, including William Kunstler and Michael Deutsch.
But two key figures were missing. One of them was one of Los Machetros’ leaders, Ojeda Rios. The other was Norberto Gonzalez-Claudio. Although he had not been in West Hartford during the robbery, there was evidence that Gonzalez acted as one of the ringleaders. Long before text messaging and wireless personal computers, he had allegedly mailed messages bearing instructions to other Los Macheteros members, who acted in otherwise independent cells.
Over the next few years, many of the defendants entered guilty pleas. But two went to trial. One of them was Juan Segarra Palmer, who was found guilty of plotting the robbery and sentenced to 65 years in prison.
The other was Suarez. Attorney Bergenn said he was able to impeach the government witnesses and show that while Suarez was involved in the toy giveaway, there was no evidence linking him to the robbery, even though he knew some of the participants. In his closing argument, Bergenn compared the leadership of Los Macheteros to the Founding Fathers of the United States, who were “seeking independence from oppressive rulers.”
Bergenn’s client was acquitted. “I learned from that case that forensic evidence is everything,” Bergenn said. “When a case is built on human testimony, it’s vulnerable.”
At the time, Richard Reeve was a federal public defender in Connecticut who was appointed to try to suppress surveillance audio recordings that were collected by the FBI from Ojeda Rios. Reeve was partially successful, though Rios never went to trial. He was later killed by authorties in Puerto Rico.
Reeve said his clients truly believed they were fighting for a just cause. “A lot has changed since then, but this is still a hotly debated political and legal issue,” Reeve said. “There has been no change in that debate since 1985. And today, Puerto Rico remains a colony.”
Gonzalez sank into obscurity after the robbery, keeping a low profile in a small village near his hometown in Puerto Rico, where he lived under an assumed name. In 2005, his brother Avelino was arrested for his role in the robbery and sentenced to seven years in prison. A third brother, Orlando, was also convicted.
Over the years, Los Macheteros faded from the news, replaced by anti-American groups from another part of the globe. In 1999, President Bill Clinton granted clemency to Palmer and three other convicted Los Macheteros members. Palmer was released from prison in 2004.
But, even as case files were transferred to microfilm and then to computer files, and even as many FBI agents who originally worked on the case retired or died of old age, the pursuit of Gonzalez was never abandoned.
Among the evidence that eventually led to his arrest were items recovered from the home where he lived at the time of the robbery. In 1985, when the FBI stormed the small house in Puerto Rico, the first thing agents seized was a beat-up typewriter.
Confirming their suspicions that Gonzalez was in charge of the group’s communications, FBI agents said they recovered forensic evidence from the typewriter ribbon linking it to dozens of Los Macheteros documents. One such document was a letter sent to media outlets that claimed credit for the Wells Fargo robbery. The letter referred to “the recuperation of approximately seven million dollars to the revolutionary movement” and praised the “outstanding participation of comrade Victor Gerona,” the FBI said.
In 2011, Gonzalez was finally tracked down and arrested. At first, he denied involvement in the robbery. But when a plea deal was worked out that spared him from life in prison, he acknowledged that he was a member of the committee that planned the heist.
Special Agent Dan Curtin, of the FBI’s New Haven field office, declined to answer specific questions about any of the evidence against Gonzalez or what led to his arrest. He said the fact that Gonzalez was finally brought to justice was testament to the commitment of all the agents who worked on the case.
“As far as the FBI is concerned, if they have a warrant for someone, whether its 45 years or three or four months old, we don’t give up,” Curtin said. “Generations of agents have worked on this arrest and never given up.”
When Gonzalez was arrested, Richard Reeve, now a private attorney in Hartford, was appointed to represent him. Reeve said it would have been difficult for authorities to find witnesses for a trial after so many years had passed. That, plus the fact that Gonzalez apparently didn’t run afoul of the law in the 26 years since the robbery, helped lead to the five-year plea deal. “That’s part of what both parties looked at in resolving this case,” he said. “This is a fair deal.”
Reeve took issue with only one point. U.S. District Judge Alfred V. Covello has called for Gonzalez-Claudio to pay the entire $7.1 million in theft proceeds in restitution. “I think an appeal [on that issue] is certainly a possibility,” Reeve said.•