Puerto Rican Independence: The Cuban Connection
By EDMUND MAHONY
Victor Gerena was getting his orders at a beat-up bank of pay phones bolted
to the back wall of Arthur Drug on Hartford's Asylum Hill. He was plotting the
country's biggest cash robbery from a 24-hour urban bazaar -- an unkempt
collection of small-time drug dealers and uptown hustlers who referred to the
phones at Arthur's as "The Office."
Juan Segarra Palmer was always on the other end of the line, 1,650 miles
away from Hartford's damp and dirty spring in Santurce, Puerto Rico. At first,
the men spoke from their homes -- Gerena rented an apartment two blocks
north of Arthur Drug at Sigourney Street and Asylum Avenue. They switched to
public pay phones, figuring the police would never be able to unearth records
from those phones.
They were wrong.
Segarra was the young, influential Machetero who recruited Gerena, a Wells
Fargo guard, to be the inside man on the robbery. No one knows exactly how
Segarra, the Ivy Leaguer, found Gerena, the dropout. Some, notably agents of
the FBI, think he must have located him through Gerena's mother, Gloria, a
"Victor volunteered himself to the movement through a mutual friend," is
coy Segarra will say.
Like everyone else in the Machetero organization, Segarra was consumed
planning Aguila Blanca -- "White Eagle," the group's code name for the
robbery -- through the spring and summer of 1983.
There were logistical issues still to be worked out with "Los Juanos,"
independentista's code name for the Cubans. Someone would have to slip into
Cuba. Segarra had to go back to Mexico City, another Cuban stronghold,
which Los Macheteros referred to by the code name "Cholo." Everything was
being coordinated by Filiberto Ojeda Rios, the Machetero founder who almost
single-handedly shaped the violent Puerto Rican independence movement in
In records generated by Los Macheteros executive committees, Ojeda was
referred to as the "First Comrade in Charge." The organization voted to commit
its "leadership and the best cadres" to the "expropriation." The Wells Fargo
robbery was to be the year's "economic operative for the benefit of the
In August, Ojeda and Segarra flew from Puerto Rico to New England to
personally oversee the robbery.
They rented a hotel room and rehearsed Gerena on how events should unfold.
Segarra got a watch and a car and timed escape routes from the Wells Fargo
depot at 21 Culbro Drive in West Hartford. Ojeda bought a Yamaha motorcyle
in Framingham, Mass., that Gerena was to use to flee the depot. Segarra told
a girlfriend he thought of the Yamaha because "no one would ever think to look
for him on a motorcycle."
On the morning of Monday, Sept. 12, 1983, Gerena and his fiancee, Ana Soto,
left their apartment and climbed into a dilapidated, 1973 Buick LeSabre
Gerena rented two days before from the Ugly Duckling rental car agency a
short distance from the depot. He swung by city hall on the way to work,
pecked Soto on the cheek and dropped her off.
Soto was taking a day off from beautician school. She was going to pick
marriage license. She and Gerena were to be wed Friday. He said he would
see her after work. He lied.
He headed west and pulled into the Wells Fargo depot at about 11 a.m. His
boss said he could go ahead and park the rustbucket Buick in one of the
depot's loading bays, where, incidentally, Gerena knew the car would be out of
As always, the Wells Fargo depot was understaffed. It was difficult to
people to take the thankless, low-paying jobs.
Gerena and another man were assigned to collect millions of dollars during
string of boring, repetitive stops on a run to Bridgeport and back. Gerena's
boss took another truck north to collect $5 million or so in Springfield.
Gerena's truck was the last one back, returning at about 9:30 p.m. Everyone
was annoyed -- not at Gerena, but at their lousy jobs. And, the first Monday
Night Football game of the season was on television that night. The three men
remaining at the depot -- Gerena, his boss and one other worker -- were saying
that they wanted to get home to watch it. But everything was behind schedule,
and a half ton of cash still had to be counted and stacked.
Gerena and his boss should have been the only two remaining at work. But
co-worker hung around, saying he wanted advice on how to navigate through
some highway construction. He didn't want to miss what was left of the football
The boss was sitting at a table, attacking a pile of paperwork. Gerena
behind him, reached into the boss's holster and slipped out his pistol. Then he
told his two co-workers that he was deadly serious. They should do exactly as
he said. Get on the floor, he ordered.
Gerena had one pair of handcuffs. He snapped them around his boss's wrists.
Perhaps because he didn't expect the third man to be there, he tied him up
with tape and rope. Then he injected them both with a substance that has
never been identified. Neither of the guards was knocked out, again perhaps
because Gerena had to split a single dosage between two men.
The two Wells Fargo guards lay wide awake on the floor for 90 minutes,
listening to the shuffle of Gerena's footsteps and the sounds of heavy metal
zippers, like those on sleeping bags or athletic equipment bags.
At 11 p.m. or so, Gerena called it quits. He had crammed as much cash as
could into his Buick. He loaded a pistol and a shotgun into the car and pulled
out of the depot. Outside, he sounded the horn twice -- a signal to an
When the police found the LeSabre at the Susse Chalet hotel in Hartford's
South Meadows, the Dallas Cowboys had just beaten the Washington
Redskins in a squeaker, 31-30. The car was empty but for a Smith & Wesson
model 36 revolver and a 12-gauge Remington pump action shotgun.
After the robbery, exhibiting something like pride of ownership, Segarra
bragged to his girlfriend that Gerena had been whisked to Springfield on a
motorcycle and then driven by car to Boston. The money was taken to
Springfield in separate cars and hidden.
The West Hartford police were absolutely baffled by the Wells Fargo robbery.
All they knew was that a nobody from Hartford was the inside man on what
was then the largest cash robbery in U.S. history. And he and the money
seemed to have vanished without a trace.
A tabloid in Boston was calling the robbery the "Big Sleep Heist," a reference
to Gerena's attempt to drug his co-workers. The police waited for Gerena to
pop to the surface of the Connecticut River. The odds seemed overwhelming
that he would prove expendable to whoever used him to grab the cash.
No one in Connecticut even dreamed a group of Puerto Rican nationalists
stolen the money to finance a Caribbean revolution -- at least until Los
Macheteros did something astoundingly stupid.